Review: Stanton SC System 3 DJ Controller
In a world of identikit 2-jogs-and-a-mixer-DJ control solutions, the Stanton SC System 3 (US$499 / £379 / €433) stands out from the crowd for so many reasons. Precisely because it dares to be different, it may be exactly the controller some DJs have been waiting for.
It’s been around for a little while now, but as with many things that push the boundaries, my experience is that many people still haven’t grasped fully what it is capable of and what makes it so different from other DJ controllers. So with that in mind, and having used one here at Digital DJ Tips both in our studio and to play out on over the last few weeks, we thought we’d give you a Stanton SC System 3 review to explore what this set-up could do for you and your DJing.
About the system
To start with, understand that when you buy the SC System 3, you’re actually getting 3 units, not one. You’re getting two SCS.3d deck control units, and one SCS.3m mixer unit. This system is nothing if not flexible and modular! They’re all available separately, and indeed you may wish to go down that route once you understand what each part can do.
The units are well made, to a professional standard. They are high-impact, high-gloss thick plastic, with gun metal-coloured casing, good quality touch surfaces and buttons, and metal chassis inside. The backs are rubber-covered and come off to reveal USB sockets (multiple in the case of the SCS.3m) and storage for USB cables.
Unusually, the units dock together magnetically. There are no protruding knobs, buttons or sliders to break, bend or accidentally rip off, when you throw the units into a bag, for instance. They are super-durable.
No sound card, but stereo splitter provided
These are controllers, not interfaces, so you’re going to need a sound card. That makes sense – they are not meant as a plug-and-play solution, rather to fit into your workflow however you see fit. If you’re looking for this kind of flexibility, you’ll already have (or be happy to purchase) a good external sound card.
Having said that, out of the box (and after after setting up – see next section) they are actually plug-and-play, as Stanton has provided a useful stereo splitter cable so you can plug your headphones and your speakers into one 1/8″ output jack from your laptop. Nice, but mine didn’t work well, with only the left-hand side of the headphones getting the signal. Hopefully that was a one-off problem with my splitter cable and not a whole batch.
3 choices for setting up
There are 3 basic ways of setting them up. First, you plug a USB into each and plug them into 3 spare USBs on your PC. My MacBook Pro only has 2 USBs, so over to option 2: You can wire the units together round the back, with one USB going off to your PC. This is good as you can pull them apart and position them where you want when DJing, and you can easily pack them away separately too.
At this stage, you’re going to need to use the supplied mains cable to power the 3 units, as they won’t all work off bus power. A shame, as would be good to not have that extra weight/inconvenience of a mains cable in something so portable, but there you go.
Finally, you can wire them the same way as above, but using internal sockets: There are clever little wire feeder holes to route the cables between the units, letting you get everything wired up as one, with just the single USB and power leads coming out of the back of the middle unit. This is best for neatness, but you then can’t take them apart without taking the backs off and undoing the cables.
The advantage of this final method of set-up is that you now effectively have a powered USB hub with 2 USB sockets at your disposal, as you’re not using the external USB sockets on the SCS.3m – great for adding keyboards or keypads, for instance. Another tick for flexibility – and now, that mains cable doesn’t seem like such a bad idea.
You need to run a small utility called DaRouter on your PC or Mac in order for it to properly recognise the combination of hardware and software you’re using. The system comes with Traktor LE, the light version of Traktor Pro, with the usual limitations (as with all of these OEM solutions) – see our article on LE vs full DJ software for more on what this means.
First impressions in use
So once we’re up and running, with Traktor installed and configured and a sound card (or the splitter lead) all working well, we’re looking at a serious compact DJ control set-up, lifted from greyness by flashing blue and red lights, and with the novelty of no moving parts.
It doesn’t invite beginners to start touching things, which is probably a good thing: Despite its size and its flashing lights, it doesn’t look like a toy – it looks like you need to know what you’re doing to make it work! Its appearance is of something new and interesting, not “novelty” or “toy-like”, which is obviously a good thing.
And to a certain extent, you do need to know what you’re doing to make it work – it is different enough to not be immediately obvious what to do next! That’s not helped by the fact that the instruction book explains each unit as if they’re not plugged together and mapped the way they actually are, so things don’t work quite how it suggests.
However, with a little reading, experimenting, and good old trial and error, what becomes apparent is that the reason things aren’t exactly as they seem is that this set-up is insanely flexible. Its difference is not just in its looks – it really does have some tricks up its sleeve.
The world of touch control
Before we look at the units individually, let’s talk in general about the touch control. The best bit about this (apart from using it and after a while simply realising how damn cool it is) is multi-touch: You can put your finger on a control and touch another part of the control with another finger, and it jumps to there, snapping back to your first finger when you remove the second one.
This lets you cut and scratch ridiculously easily. It lets you stutter the crossfader, or drop bass on and out, for instance. And you can return to centre with the touch of one button. This kind of precise control actually encourages you to mess around more (not less, as you might expect with the removal of physical controls). More later on the touch control features.
This is the deck part of the unit, best compared to a CDJ. It can control 2 Traktor decks, so if you want to use an external mixer, you can run a 2-deck version of Traktor with one of these – a bit like the X1, but with more tactile deck control. Use 2 of these, and you can control 4 Traktor decks through an external mixer (a bit like Domas is doing with his 2 X1s in our recent interview).
You can control all the usual CDJ deck-type functions, but look at this list of extras – all controllable over 2 decks per unit, remember (by the way, you’ll need Traktor Pro for 4-deck control):
- Gain slider
- Full FX control
- Comprehensive loop control
- Hot cue triggers (you’ll need to get your hands dirty to configure these as they don’t seem to be catered for out of the box)
- Library scrubbing & loading of tracks
Stanton call the round control surfaces “StanTouch Control Areas”. They are multi-use. You can stroke clockwise and anticlockwise for fast scrubbing, or vertically for finer control.
This is where the multiple cue triggers can be (up to 9 per unit). It is also where you’ll scrub through your library, manipulate your FX – in short, it’s truly a multi-use surface. It even shows you visually when a track is slipping out of time, letting you correct it with the sweep of a finger. In a generation getting used to iPad, Android and MacBook touch gestures, Stanton are on the game here.
It’s worth pointing out that 4 of the controls actually aren’t touch at all. Wisely maybe, Stanton has decided that having physical Play, Cue, Sync and Tap buttons is the best thing. Maybe having the whole thing as a touch surface would have been a leap too far. I don’t think the sync button needs to be one of these traditional controls, but I suspect that as a whole these 4 buttons lend the system just enough of a traditional feel for it not to scare some people off entirely.
So we’ve already seen a deck that can control far more than the transport functions. Now let’s look at a mixer that’s got ideas above its rightful station too!
The SCS.3m can, on its own, control much of the functionality of 4 Traktor decks. Using the device on its own, you get BPM tap, sync toggle, play and cue buttons (where the kills are in the full system set-up), the balance controls from the full set-up becoming jog scratch/pitch benders. I haven’t had time to try it, but I reckon it’s pretty easy to rock 4 decks for an extended set on just this one single tiny unit, all through one spare channel on an external mixer and with a tiny footprint. But with the 2 SCS.3ds magnetised to its sides? Well you can already see the potential.
So, set up as a full system, there are individual kills plus an EQ reset for all channels, plus master-out, balance, cue level and cue balance “faders”. LEDs let you see where controls are set, and there are proper VU meters for both channels at the bottom left and right of the unit. With clever use of shift-type functionality, you can coarsely scrub through tracks, cue tracks, nudge and pitch bend at ease.
Scratching is dead, long live scratching
One trick Stanton suggest (and which I have to share) is using the nice, long touch-sensitive crossfader to “drum” a track in, on the beat. You just put your finger at one end and “drum” the other 3 fingers on the crossfader, enacting bullet-fast volume changes. While you can’t perform scratch techniques in the traditional ways, you can certainly appropriate new ways of doing them – and also do things you just can’t do with physical faders. (Unless you happen to have 3 or 4 hands!)
Hit “FX” and all of a sudden you are controlling the FX and filters. The filter is pretty sensitive so you have to be careful not to complete kill the whole track, but when you get used to it you can’t keep your hands – or should I say fingers – off of it.
With built-in firmware presets and Midi learn, you can set your 3 units up in a number of out-of-the-box permutations, or of course go the whole way and map it exactly how you want to fit into your workflow. Of course you’re not tied to Traktor either, as it will happily work with all kinds of software.
I have to say I absolutely love this system. It’s not going to be right for everyone – it’s too different for that – but it ticks my boxes. For me, digital DJing is about pushing the boundaries – of ease of use, of size, of capability, even of what DJing actually is and where it can be done. This little system has something to say about all of these things, and then some.
- It’s small and durable enough to genuinely be packed to take anywhere with you – I think it will go on for years and years with no problems
- It can be split so you can use the parts that most make sense for what you’re trying to do
- It’s a powered USB hub so can work with your other equipment and a simple, small laptop
- It actually feels easier to use and packs in more features than many full-sized controllers
- It is the most insanely flexible piece of DJ gear I’ve yet to test
Best for intermediate to advanced DJs
That said, it’s probably not right for beginners. It is too far removed from what you would “expect” DJing to be like. In my experience, most beginners want something as close to 2 decks and a mixer as their pennies can afford, and one day dream of graduating to “real” decks. Fair enough, everyone deserves the chance to try the traditional way of doing things.
No, it’s the more experienced DJs who’ve “been there, done that” who are going to immediately light up on seeing what this system can do. They’re the ones thinking of DJing in their headphones in airport waiting lounges, or playing impromptu sets in bars on holiday, or having all of this power to add on top of another DJ’s set in a club, or having a full-strength DJ set-up in a tiny corner of their home, or simply having a truly portable second DJ system with 4 decks and FX.
It’s these DJs who’ll realise that having 18 cue triggers available is actually ridiculous in something that does all the rest too. And it’s them who’ll see the thought that’s gone into making what looks like just a small box with a few flashing lights on it, but what is in fact one of the most flexible, powerful and innovative DJ control surfaces that’s on the market today.
Helping us to redefine what DJing is and where it happens
What we think of as “DJing” has been demystified, sometimes much to the chagrin of the “old skool”. Traktor’s beat-gridding, snapping and sync button did for all the mystery, and cheaper and cheaper hardware is breaking down the high barriers of entry too. This system simply shrinks it all down further, add in some new tools and a whack more power, and give more ability to integrate the whole DJing thing into a bigger workflow to boot.
Today’s DJs are in bands, they sing, they produce, they recreate whole live sets with tiny laptop set-ups. What’s more, they get the chance to do it out of the back of vans at festivals, on the beach, and in club second rooms where there’s little more than a PA system and a strobe light. Kit like this just helps them to push it all a little bit further.
If Stanton could find a way to alleviate the need for external power, they’d have this just about perfect. Oh, and use a better printing company – my manual has fallen apart already with all the feature-flicking!
Have you got or are you considering getting this system? Do you use it in a special or novel way? Or do you think you would miss “real” controls too much to switch to DJing like this? Let us know!