Review: Vestax VCI-400DJ Serato DJ Controller
Vestax VCI-400DJ for Serato DJ full review: The Vestax VCI-400DJ for Serato DJ is a new version of the Vestax VCI-400, is widely regarded as one of the most professional DJ controller out there, with a wealth of high quality controls, an amazing sound card, and an insane amount of "mappability".
Of course, with all the flexibility of a "pro" controller comes a learning curve, which one suspects Vestax felt might have been harming acceptance of the original VCI-400. Maybe that's why recently, the company has pushed both the Traktor mapping for the original VCI-400, and launched a new version - the VCI-400DJ, reviewed here today - which is tightly mapped to Serato DJ, that is also supplied with the unit. So: Out-of-the-box brilliance, or dumbing down? Let's find out…
First impressions and setting up
The controller is physically identical to the VCI-400, save a new faceplate that is silver and printed with the correct labelling for Serato. (Actually, Serato DJ now works with the original VCI-400 too as long as you buy the software, so the difference here is that with the new VCI-400DJ, you get Serato DJ in the box, and that faceplate to make everything easier to understand.)
For those of you unfamiliar with the VCI-400, it's bigger and heavier than most compact DJ controllers, while still remaining nowhere near as the "next size up" models like the Numark 4Trak / NS6, or the Pioneer DDJ-SX. For me, this strikes the right balance between portability and features: the VCI-400DJ is in no way cramped, but can still fit into a backpack easily enough. It's roughly Traktor Kontrol S4 sized, although due to that all-metal build, is considerably heavier.
The standout features are four full channels; hardware filters that all have their own big red knobs, one per channel; full standalone mixer capability, switchable between two and all channels; and an all-over high amount of control over everything from FX routing to cross- and line-fader curves. Individual channel VUs (built rather neatly into the fader slots) and a master VU provide comprehensive monitoring, and with twin microphones, XLR/TRS master outputs, and two external line inputs, really the only criticism of the inputs and outputs would be the lack of a booth monitor or record out (and deck inputs - no using this with turntables).
Serato software is famously easy to get going; you install it, jump through a relatively simple licence activation "hoop", and you're off, the whole thing needing little more than for you to plug the VCI-400 into outlet power and your computer, and attach some powered speakers and headphones. The only other setting you really need to concern yourself with is setting the touch sensitivity of the jogwheels correctly, using two tiny controls on the front panel; this makes them move at the correct speed and respond promptly to your touch.
I used the controller (completely against my own advice to anyone who ever asks) for a "real" gig, having not actually auditioned it at all up until that point! Happily, I can report it was easy enough to get going on, and I had next to no mishaps. (I have to also make clear that I'm familiar with Serato DJ, and also the Vestax VCI-300 and VCI-380, so it wasn't a massive leap to the '400DJ).
One of the things I really liked about it was the way the six rubber buttons under each jogwheel have been mapped. The are basically play/pause, cue and (rather bizarrely), censor, for all four channels. That means that you can control basic transport of all four decks without switching to the "hidden" deck if you don't want to. I've not seen this on any DJ controller before, and it works well. I honestly don't know why they didn't map the "sync" button to the one they've used for "censor" though - it would have been more usual and made more sense to do this.
While the VCI-400DJ lacks the natty rotating LEDs of the VCI-380 on its jogs, for me that was more than made up for by having big, chunky filters there to play with. They have bright red LEDs to show you that they are engaged - saving mishaps when accidentally mixing into a fully filtered channel, for instance once you're used to checking. (Not that I did that at all, ahem, no, of course not…)
There is simple beatmatched looping available using a push encoder, but there's also full recallable manual looping available as one of four performances modes. These performance modes ape the VCI-380 more or less, with hot cue, loop, roll and sampler (the manual looping replacing the VCI-380's slicer - again, something I think is more useful on the '400). This eight buttons plus four mode buttons set-up is originally from the Novation Twitch, but is not as nice to use on the VCI-400 as the VCI.380 or the Twitch, the buttons being smaller and harder than the more tactile rubberised version on those controllers.
The effects section controls all modes of Serato DJ's FX engines, including the ability to dasiychain three simple FX together, and then route them wherever you wish. Having the FX and filters separate is a godsend, and a definite winner over the VCI-380 in my book.
Advanced deck controls include two sunken deck select rockers, a slip function, vinyl mode for the jogs, and a beat skip mode for in-time track scrubbing. Many of these functions area available using the shift buttons, which add an extra layer of Midi control. The small slider volume right in the centre of the controller operates the overall SP-6 sample player volume, dividing the library rotary encoder below it from the navigation buttons (area focus, file/folder browsing etc) above.
In use, just like the VCI-400 for Traktor, I found the controller sounded excellent, felt utterly reliable, and let me just get on with the task at hand without much recourse to the instructions. I have to admit I needed to work out the jogwheel settings to get them working right, but when they are, they're tighter than the same controller with Traktor. Also, I had to consult the manual to crack manual looping (you can adjust loop in and out points using the jogwheels, which is natty) - but overall, it's all pretty apparent with a little experimentation what does wheat.
From some of the prototype variations on the VCI-400 that I saw at a recent music trade show, it looks like the bigger plan from Vestax is to package this controller up and bundle it with various DJ software packages moving forward, which makes sense; selling a "one size fits all" controller is all well and good, but many DJ just want to plug and play. and with this Serato DJ version, they've certainly achieved that.
It is intuitive, powerful, great sounding, and a blast to DJ with. It feels reliable, and has plenty of inputs and outputs to deal with most DJing situations, yet it is still practical for throwing in a bag and taking to your gig without breaking your back. I didn't like the weird prominence of the "censor" button; I am a DJ who always uses "sync" nowadays rather than manually monkey-matching my beats, and so would have liked to have seen that used for the "sync" feature. Maybe they felt having sync so prominently would cheapen the controller?
I also found one other weird thing. That is this: When you turn the gain ("trim", in Vestax terminology) knob on the hardware, the trim control and on-screen VU meters on the software remain static. the level is apparently being adjusted in the software rather than by the hardware, so why that isn't reflected is anyone's guess, and is certainly counter intuitive.
However, with full metering on the unit itself it's not a big issue; just an irk. The only other irk was that on my (possible pre-production) faceplate, "USB Midi Controller" is misspelled "USB Midi Contoroller"!
Overall? The VCI-400DJ with Serato DJ supplied in the box is a smart move by Vestax, and I think will see a rush of sales from Serato-loving DJs who want a controller with roughly similar capabilities to the Pioneer DDJ-SX, but with a smaller footprint. If you're in the market for such a controller, you should definitely check it out. Competition-wise, compare it to the Reloop Terminal Mix 4, which I feel is its closest competitor, although the VCI-400 does have a more comprehensive mapping and overall slightly better build to accompany its higher price point.
Are you tempted by the VCI-400DJ? Are you a current VCI-400 user who already uses it with Serato DJ? Please share your thoughts below.