Review: Vestax VCI-300 & Serato ITCH
So I’ve had my Vestax VCI-300 DJ controller for three months now. I’ve got used to it in my home, DJed with it in busy nightclubs next to vinyl and CD DJs, and launched a new beach bar residency using it. All that and a couple of messy parties too. I’ve now got a great view of its potential, its weaknesses and its strengths. This isn’t a full review (there are plenty of those around) – rather some real life thoughts after the first period of my ownership of this mid-range DJ controller.
My previous kit
I moved to the Vestax VCI-300 / Serato Itch combination from being a real, real purist Virtual DJ user; purist in so far as I didn’t even have a DJ controller!
Now I think Virtual DJ is a great piece of software. Not perfect (I’ve used it for five years, so I know) but great nonetheless. I had custom-mapped my Windows XP laptop keyboard right down the middle to duplicate a DJ controller, with the cursor keys operating as nudge and pitch shift, and keys for left/right deck volume, bass, mid, treble, kills, “everything back to 12 o’clock” etc.
More than that, I had loops, sample triggers, shortcuts for accessing files etc. In short, every time I thought of something new I’d like throughout that five years, I just found an unused key combination and added it. As I also had an Echo Indigo DJ PCI-slot soundcard, it means I could literally turn up anywhere with just my laptop and some headphones and DJ right on – nothing else needed.
New computer, new DJ controller
I decided to make the switch because my old Sony Vaio was on the way out and I fancied a MacBook Pro (never looked back, but that’s another story). In my heart of hearts I missed the immediacy of some kind of control surface (I am a vinyl DJ at heart, but an MP3 DJ in my head).
Plus, not wanting to have a controller and a soundcard (which would have felt like a step backwards) I decided on the VCI-300 knowing it had a built-in soundcard and on the strength of the reviews, all the while knowing it was going to take a bit of getting used to after the tried-and-tested Virtual DJ setup. (Hell, I DJed a Saturday night residency for a long time with just the laptop in a purist dance club. It has earned its stripes…)
Setting it up and first use
Unsurprisingly, the Serato Itch software was a cinch to set up and use. All my music is organised on iTunes, and just like Virtual DJ, the software found my playlists immediately – no problem there. However, it crashed every single time I plugged the VCI-300 in. I had to quit the software and reload it to get it to work. No biggie, but annoying.
Serato couldn’t solve this on their (very helpful) support desk, but the recent software update did. So – don’t know what that was, but it’s fixed now. All’s well that ends well.
I took to the software and controller immediately. It felt TOO easy – seriously, I read the short manual a couple of times, but it taught me very little that wasn’t obvious from using the thing. I felt almost let down – I kind of thought: “Is this all there is to it?”
First time with the Vestax VCI-300 in a club
I played my first set on the thing in a busy mainstream club, with a big birthday party in. There was a pop DJ holding the floor well when I arrived, and I got the usual “shit, I have to follow this guy and there’s no way I’m playing Tina Turner, they’re getting some dance music, so I’d better make it work!” feeling. As I balanced the thing on the top of the existing kit and plugged it in to the ancient house mixer, I suddenly realised that the simplicity that had left me feeling a bit cheated at first was now working in my favour.
It performed flawlessly; I was playing an old school set (’88-’92 house, breaks, a bit of indie), and mixing it better than I had imagined, looping vocals, using the key lock to throw tunes like The Stone Roses “Fools Gold” and Young MC’s “Know How” together flawlessly despite the wide tempo difference. I had lots of compliments and went home very satisfied with the freedom the thing gave me musically to get a bit drunk, jump around and not worry about hitting reasonable mixes every time.
More about the hardware
The unit is constructed beautifully in gloss plastic, metal and rubber, with hard acrylic and metal platters and high quality rubber/plastic buttons. The faders are high quality and the pitch controls mimic Technics decks. The cross fader is feather light, and the lights behind the opaque function buttons are a little tacky but still quite impressive in the dark.
Ideally some backlighting wouldn’t have hurt for the rubber knobs, as they don’t stand out well in the dark. They’re also quite stiff – I am used to precise kills and you can’t replicate that effect easily on this; I miss this a lot.
I also miss some of my presets from Virtual DJ. I used to have keys programmed that would jump forwards or back 8 bars on the currently playing tune. It was great to jump past boring intros without the crowd noticing, to elongate/shorten breaks completely spontaneously, or to buy a few extra beats at the end of a track to lengthen a mix without setting up a loop. I miss this too. In fact, it’s the whole programmability bit I miss.
The strength of the VCI-300 and Serato Itch combination is also its weakness
Of course, the thing is that with a tied software/hardware combination, you have to put up with such things and I do, but it doesn’t stop me missing them. I’d like also, for instance, to be able to set a loop on a break, halve its length, and again, and again, and again, built the tension up, then hit “out” and the track to take off where the original length loop would have ended.
You can replicate this by setting a cue point where that part of the track is, but it takes the spontaneity away.
Slight mechanical worries
Also, mechanically, the platters span utterly without friction or noise when I first got the unit. Already, the left platter grinds audibly a little, the right a little less (but still a bit). It doesn’t affect the feel, you can’t hear it when the music is on, but you know it’s there. The platters also wobble just a bit. These are so essential to the functioning of a piece of equipment like this that I would have liked them to be 100%, not 95%. Still, if the stay like this for the next five years, I won’t lose any sleep.
The Serato Itch software
Software wise, it’s really simple and easy to use. It’s great to be able to flick through tracks on the PC screen directly from the VCI-300, and although I do still use the laptop keyboard for bits and pieces (normally searching for tracks that have occurred to me that I didn’t crate up for the night), it’s great not to rely on it. I haven’t used Serato’s crates system at all, as I just organise my playlists in iTunes, so I can’t comment on how good this is.
It’s really good how the software remembers cue points in tunes, as you can have tracks that you essentially use just for vocal snippets etc all ready, load them, and be dropping samples in straight away, in seconds. Nice touch, and something I’ve not used before but that I use a lot now.
Overall – I love it. This is my DJ kit for the next few years and I am happy to say that for me, controllers have now come of age (I was given a free Hercules five years ago to review for a DJ magazine – and that is what led to my decision to just DJ from the PC keyboard, it was that clunky to use).
The hardware with its built-in soundcard is just so simple, it works brilliantly with the software, and while the setup is not as geeky as my old custom Virtual DJ setup, it is, hand-on-heart, much better at just doing the job at hand. Leaving me to programme and play (hopefully) great music – just what DJing should be about. I’ll report back in a few month’s time to update my views on the combo.
Have you bought the VCI-300? What are your experiences of it? Do you feel it should have had effects built in rather than available separately? Have you had any problems with it? Let us know below.