Review: Numark Orbit Wireless DJ Controller
Numark Orbit Full Review: Looking like a kid's toy and a game controller rolled into one, the Numark Orbit Wireless DJ Controller has people thinking "gimmick!" as soon as they see it. Which, it turns out, is a monumental error of judgement, as I've discovered over the last few days testing the unit for our Numark Orbit review.
It turns out that the Orbit is a brilliantly conceived, well-built wireless Midi controller that has been aimed by Numark at not only button-pushing DJs, but all sorts: Avant-garde lighting artists looking for a performance controller, all the way to jobbing "jocks" who are tired of having to plug in a separate Midi controller just to do their cues and library browsing - and just about everyone in-between.
First impressions of the Orbit
If you've only seen the pictures of the Numark Orbit, don't judge it just on those. Because I promise you that when you hold it, some of your preconceptions will change instantly. It's really nicely made, and feels great in the hands. It's got a decent weight to it, and the black casing is slightly rubberised with natural indentations on the underside for your fingers to settle in as you grab it, game controller-style, with two hands.
One thing people are right about: It really does look and feel like a game controller, clearly quite deliberately. Like the best such controllers, it is built to stand abuse, too. It has high-quality metal buttons top left and right on the edge for forefinger control, although unlike some game controllers there are no buttons on the back. The eight pads either side of the central jogwheel lend themselves to thumb control, so when you're holding it in both hands, you have effectively two forefingers and two thumbs to access its buttons and the jogwheel. Everything else has been designed for that position to feel simple and natural.
On the right-hand edge of the Orbit is a small indentation where an on/off switch and a micro USB socket live, along with an LED to show you if the unit is charging via USB. Turning this switch on causes the unit's lights to display arbitrary colours, and even when nothing's plugged in, turning the jogwheel in the centre of the unit makes a blue LED ring rotate in the direction you're moving the jog in. In a shaded place or at night the units lights are clear to see; in bright sunlight, however, it's impossible to see them.
There are two chrome loops left and right bottom of the unit presumably for attaching a neck strap, and there's a well-designed detachable brace at the back which could be used with the supplied Velcro strap to attach the unit presumably to your arm or something, although it felt way too wobbly when I tried it. Point is that it's been designed to be carried, strapped, attached or hung however it suits you - befitting for a wireless device.
Setting up the Orbit
No software at all in the box. All you get, in fact, is the Orbit unit is self plus a slim slip carry case, the micro USB cable, the wireless dongle and a little USB extension, presumably for plugging the dongle into tight spots. To get the software, then, it's off to the Numark website. The process is currently convoluted (two website addresses, each with different procedures to get your software; you have to give over an awful lot of personal information to get anywhere near a downloaded link, the "locate my serial" page doesn't work…); Numark says it is working on streamlining this process.
Once you've jumped that hurdle (and, on a Mac at least, got past your computer bleating about unknown developers), you can get two basic pieces of software to play with. The first is the Orbit DJ program, which is the simplest way to experiment with the device, and the second is a Midi editing software so you can roll your sleeves up and get it to do custom stuff. Finally, Numark provides mapping files for existing DJ software too, and has started with a Traktor mapping, which we will look at here. Whatever you choose to use, to get started, you simply plug a the dongle into your computer, turn the Orbit on and - that's it! I found the unit worked instantly.
Basic function & Orbit DJ software
Orbit DJ is a small program designed to show you what Orbit's 16 backlit pads, 4 selectable banks, 4 virtual knobs per bank, and 2-axis accelerometer can do. Orbit DJ is essentially an over-simplified two-deck DJ program. No headphones cueing, no BPM analysis, no sync, no tempo adjustment, no library controls - you drag and drop tunes onto its decks and then control rudimentary transport and simple crossfading, volume, EQ and FX using the Orbit. As a DJ program, it's a non-starter; as a demonstration of the Orbit, it's fine. From that angle, let's see what you can do with it. The Orbit's top four buttons select what the jogwheel does. In this instance, only two of them work. They let you alter the volume of the current track, or use the jog as a crossfader. The bottom four buttons switch between four banks of main pad controls, and in this case they switch between transport/cues/loops and FX for each deck.
Meanwhile, the top metal buttons turn the motion control on or off; hold down this button with another (i.e. filter), and the further you move from level, the more pronounced the effect. It's pretty neat stuff. When using the motion buttons, though, it also became clear to me that a very good additional way of using this unit is flat on a surface; cue juggling would be easier that way, and it has big rubber strips underneath it to keep it sturdy when being used like this. Being wireless, of course, it would easy to pick it up and put it down whenever you want.
With some improvements, Orbit DJ could actually be useful for playing parties and the like. It needs a sync function, library browsing and loading, the ability to use the jogwheel to manipulate current track, plus some weird behaviour ironing out (the "clear" button for the cues clears all of them, not allowing you to tap the one you want to clear), but I repeat that it's there to show you what Orbit can do and prove the concept to you - plus, it's only a v1. (Why not make those waveforms parallel in any future version too, Numark?)
Using it with the Traktor Pro 2 Mapping
Downloadable from http://www.numark.com/ozone, the 2/4-deck transport plus Nebul4 FX mappings are as easy to install as any Traktor mapping ("do it twice to make sure" - ah, the straightforward world of Traktor). Once you're in, you'll immediately see that it brings a whole new set of possibilities to the ballpark.
The mappings lets you control, across two decks, many of the basics and a LOT of the effects in Traktor. Volume, (low) EQ, filter, key, crossfader, library browsing and loading - all are areas accomplished by the jogwheel. The "gaming" buttons top left and right are instant motion control filters (again, one per deck). Play, sync, master sync, loop, flux mode, even beatjumping is all easy, and the right-hand eight buttons are your eight hot cues.
Meanwhile, select banks 3 and 4 (for effects, one for each channel), and it's like an Aladdin's cave of goodies, with all the popular effects present and correct, and even combo knobs mapped to the four jogwheel buttons and the jogwheel itself (of course). Meanwhile, the "gaming" buttons let you use motion control to take charge of the main parameter of the effect in question. It's brilliant fun, cleverly mapped, and I'll bet you'll love it.
At this point, one user case scenario became blatantly clear: In two words, Traktor Scratch. If you use Traktor Scratch, especially with vinyl but also with simple CDJ players (i.e. no Midi/HID), you generally either use your laptop's keyboard a lot, or take along a Traktor Kontrol X1 or something similar in order to do transport, library selection, loops, cues and so on. With this unit you get all of that, plus an expressive effects controller that is frankly about a million times more fun. And it's wireless all. Now that's pretty cool.
By the way, there's also a track preparation and beatgridding mapping for Traktor. Now that could just be a killer use of this little unit, churning through your beatgridding on a handheld instead of hunching over the keyboard...
Using it with the mapping editor
Let's remember that this is basically a Midi controller, that just happens to be wireless. Now that means that you can use the free, supplied mapping editor to do all kinds of things. (First thing: If all you want to do is change the colour of the LEDs, you can do that from the unit itself - clever. But I'm assuming if you're reading this section you need to do slightly more than that.)
For instance, at the moment there's no Serato Scratch Live mapping. I assume Numark will come up with one fast enough, but you could get to work mapping your own - it's not exactly hard to map SSL. Or, you could map this to control the video elements of your performance software, while your DJ controller or other traditional gear takes part of the audio. Or, as in this video & case study, you could use it to take control of VJ software. And it doesn't take a genius to point out that those pads and banks would lend themselves nicely to Ableton Live mappings, too.
Now, many years ago, summer would approach, school would be out, and I'd kick back with some project or other (I was a geek, it usually involved building radios and things with my dad's electronics components), and happily get absorbed in it for weeks on end. Later, when I first got into digital DJing, I did the same with mappings (although at this point, I was a weekend-busy, week-lazy DJ!). However, I am not ashamed to admit that nowadays the idea of spending more than a couple of hours on a non-mission critical project (like experimenting with a mappings editor) fills me with priority-violating panic. So I'll admit: I took a quick look at this software, scoped it out, and got out of there!
Point is, the mapping editor is there, and I saw enough to know it works. If you're into that stuff and you want to map this for yourself, that means that the Orbit is basically a highly advanced, innovative wireless Midi controller that you can blow your mind mapping in all kinds of as-yet-unimagined ways, to basically any software with Midi capability.
For the rest of us, Numark has promised hand on heart that it'll continue to post useful mappings for Orbit over at http://www.numark.com/ozone. It should definitely start with Serato Scratch Live, in my opinion, to match the Traktor mapping it already has.
It's ironic that while those who've never seen or touched this are dismissing it as a toy, those who have are realising it has huge potential as a serious performance tool. It is in absolutely no way, shape or form a toy. It is a highly practical, well made, well thought-out Midi controller, with the motion control being a "wow!" factor, and the wireless being a stroke of genius.
It is clearly meant to be a secondary controller, to slot in to "fill gaps" or extend the possibilities of existing systems. For sample triggering, combination buttons, button mashing as well as FX and more mundane (loop, cue) controls, it is perfect. It can basically assist with missing functions on any set-up, with no need for any wires or fuss - just the right mapping (that you can make yourself, or that surely the ecosystem will begin to provide). Even at the moment, Traktor users should seriously consider getting one of these, if for nothing more than the fun you can have with effects.
Technically it works on the 2.4GHz wireless band, the same as wireless mouse/keyboard devices, and I certainly found negligible to zero latency, so if you're worrying that this might be a problem, I'd say not to. Of course, the further you stray from the laptop the more it is likely to be, although Numark claims a decent distance. It also claims a long (six hour) battery life. The unit can be charged by USBing it into your computer; you can also perform on it that way, so if latency/battery life do loom their heads, that's an easy fallback for both.
Shortcomings and competition
So, my dislikes? Having a "shift" button (or buttons) underneath the unit would have been good (currently, holding a pad assigned to shift plus another button/turning the jog is tricky). The Orbit DJ software is poor for doing anything useful with; they should talk to Virtual DJ and get an Orbit skinned version of that program sorted (maybe they are already doing so). Oh, and forget about seeing any of the unit's lights in the sunshine - it's a no-go.
And what else is it like out there on the market? well, the Numark Orbit borrows from all kinds of technologies. The LPD8 and other pad controllers are used by DJs currently who may be interested in this for sample control and so on.
As a utility controller for Traktor Scratch or Serato Scratch Live, controllers like the Traktor Kontrol X1 or similar are alternatives. The QuNeo is wireless. And the Midi Fighter Spectra put tilt control in a DJ controller first, but is wired which is obviously a downside for a motion controller.
At least for some users, the Numark Orbit will improve on all existing solutions. If you want to bring extra Midi control to your DJ, VJ or even production set-up, and you want something small, neat and practical to set up and use, take a look. If you like the idea of actually using its motion control and lights to show your audience what you're doing, double so. the simple, easy to use wireless, though, is the clincher. Well done to Numark for talking the risk; hopefully people will understand this already misunderstood little unit in sufficient numbers to make it a success.
Beautifully built and massively fun to use, it's clear that a lot of thought has gone into this little DJ controller. Its motion control elements are fun, the wireless side turns out to be highly practical, and especially for Traktor users wanting to liberate effects, it's perfect (there's a mapping) - although you can map it yourself too. It may look like a toy, but it's anything but.
- Orbit Wireless DJ Controller
- Manufacturer:: Numark
- Price: $99
- Reviewed by:
What did you think about this unit when you first heard about or saw it? Has your view changed? Could you see yourself with a small, wireless controller for your FX, beatgridding, library browsing or other supplementary activities to your main gear? Please share your thoughts in the comments.