Long before the Midi Fighter, when DJing was all about two record decks and a mixer, basically the idea of customising your gear from the ground up was a non-starter. Turning a Technics turntable around by 90 degrees to make scratching easier was the biggest innovation to hit DJing in a decade.
Saying that things have changed is probably the understatement of the new decade! Midi and digital music mean that anything you can imagine, you can usually find a way of doing. From DJing with just your laptop to adding any number of Midi control surfaces of which the Midi Fighter controller is just one, it’s really in your hands what you use to DJ with when you embrace digital.
This surfeit of choice is not a good thing for many people. They want to play records. That is fine – there are controller systems designed to let you do that. Serato ITCH and its associated controllers such as the Vestax VCI-300 or NS7 will give you the 2-decks-and-a-mixer feel of vinyl, but with digital files. Job done.
Taking it further than 2 decks
But there are others who are excited that the possibilities are now wider than before. You can do things with the music that you couldn’t do until digital came along because you couldn’t physically move the needles on the records in the new ways in order to do such things.
Setting and triggering multiple cue points on a tune so you can chop it up live is one such thing. Sampling “on the fly” and DJing with the samples you grab is another. Putting your music (or the results of the above) through the effects that come with modern DJ software is a third. And playing elements of any number of different tunes, but key and/or beat locked together so they create a convincing new whole is a fourth. The list goes on.
All of this stuff is possible with modern DJ software, and what’s more it’s possible with using just a laptop and keyboard – after all, there are several hundred key combinations available to you on a laptop keyboard, and by instructing modern DJ software such as Traktor or Virtual DJ as to which keys you wish to control which functions, it is possible to DJ convincingly and to a high degree of technicality with nothing more. Indeed, here at Digital DJ Tips, we’re writing a guide on how to DJ with just a laptop, that will include a custom Midi mapping to make this not just possible, but easy.
Controllers add fun
But chances are that in the end, you’ll want to add a controller – something to let you “get physical” with the music. Here’s where your preferences come into play, big style. There are dozens to choose from, and the controller for you is going to be a personal thing, like the car you drive. Cue much research, and the subject of many of our articles here on Digital DJ Tips!
Most people start with an all-in-one DJ controller such as any of those in our DJ Midi controllers round-up. But it is perfectly possible to DJ with any Midi device – a keyboard, or a drum pad, or a mixer – or a Midi Fighter. Whether it’s your only DJ controller or one you add to an existing set-up, a Midi Fighter controller could give you the extra edge you’re looking for.
First impressions/setting up
The Midi Fighter is a hand-assembled product from DJ Tech Tools, a San Francisco-based organisation fronted by DJ Ean Golden that has been championing controllerism since its early days. Smaller and lighter than you may guess, the Midi Fighter contains 16 Japanese arcade buttons, spring loaded and colour coded, of the type you find in real arcade machines. They are probably the best buttons in the world for responsiveness and reliability, and that masterstroke is a big tick for the Midi Fighter.
It is beautifully designed and constructed in acrylic and rubber, with blue LEDs to show you whether a button is pressed/locked, and simple rubber-type feet to keep it rock solid as you’re using and abusing it.
The actual concept of playable Midi control devices is, of course, not in itself groundbreaking – from keyboards and mixers to drum and sample trigger pads, you have a lot of choice in this area. What you get with Midi Fighter is a single idea (playable buttons), executed with an extreme focus on the task at hand.
If you’re struggling to get your head around it, I think the Novation Dicer controllers are the closest other product out there – simple, cleverly configurable buttons that fit easily into the creative DJ’s workflow (it’s no surprise that DJ Tech Tools also offers mappings for Dicers).
You can customise yours before you order it by choosing your own buttons and panel colour at the Midi Fighter website, and choose to assemble it yourself or have it made for you. It is nothing if not an enthusiast’s product, and the limited edition production runs couldn’t be more different from many of the mass-produced consumer products that dominate this industry.
The unit arrives boxed with a certificate of authenticity with the name of who assembled it for you and your name on it too, plus a manufacture date and issue number. There are also 2 stickers, a gold-plated USB cable, and a hex key for opening it in the box.
It needs no drivers, so you plug it into your computer, power up your software of choice, and go to the mapping/Midi learn section and go right ahead and program the buttons to suit whatever functions you were dreaming of when you ordered it.
You’re not alone
Of course, other DJs got there before you, and that’s where the fact that you’re buying from an organisation that is owned and staffed by DJs works in your favour – a great little community has grown around this product on the website. As such, there are mappings available for you to use as they are or customise, and also a number of videos to show you more. Don’t expect to find exhaustive mappings for all software (DJ Tech Tools is Traktor-centric), but they’re a start.
There are performance videos there too from Ean Golden himself but also other users (DJ Tech Tools ran a contest recently for DJs to showcase their Midi Fighter-powered mixes), to broaden your thoughts about what is possible and suggest things you may wish to adopt and run with.
Mapping and using it
As I mentioned earlier, here at Digital DJ Tips we’re working on a guide to DJing with just a laptop and Virtual DJ, so I decided to add the Midi Fighter to that set-up to see how much use it could be as an additional controller to the keyboard (note: you need Virtual DJ Pro to be able to use external Midi kit, it won’t work with the free version).
Setting it up is as simple as plugging it in and selecting Midi in the settings of Virtual DJ, and it’s basically the same in Traktor. You press “Learn”, hit a key on the Midi Fighter, and then tell the software what you want that key to do.
In order to give you an idea of the many uses you could put one of these too, I set the Midi Fighter up to give me some external control over Virtual DJ’s EQ kills, browsing and loading, beat syncing, transport controls, and a simple programmed effect. (There’s a video demonstration of our test mapping using Virtual DJ below.) My choices were pretty arbitrary and I just wanted to show you how really, it’s a blank canvas for you to add whatever helps you in your DJing.
Now, we stopped there, but you can program echos, filters, hot cues for beat-juggling and so on to your exact specifications. This way you could have a controller that sits alongside your usual DJ set-up, whatever it is, with additional controls limited only by your imagination and time.
That’s one of the ways that the Midi Fighter shines – from choosing your own button colours to the fact that there are no predefined “rights” and “wrongs”, it encourages the enthusiast to map functions that will help him or her to DJ in more exciting and original ways.
It’s true that you need to “get” controllerism, and you need to know a bit about editing mappings. But you should be getting into this stuff anyway (“program or be programmed” is a wise mantra for today’s world), and with the community and mappings that already exist, a Midi Fighter is as good a place as any to start.
You know, just a few years ago the idea of adding a custom control to a DJ set-up would have been met with wide eyes. Now it’s not only possible, but it’s possible to do it in some style. Even today, the idea of having a custom controller for your DJing is great, but you’d expect to pay a lot for the privilege. But with the Midi Fighter, you can have a “semi-custom” controller for a great price.
By choosing your button colours, you can pre-plan what you are going to have your controller do, then when it arrives, set it up to give you highly tactile access to those functions, whether its beat juggling with multiple cues, looping, having 2 units mapped to control 2 individual decks – your imagination is the limit here.
For me, DJing with just a laptop is great fun, but simply putting one of these alongside such a set-up means I could free up effects, cues and looping so my performance would become more exciting. That way I could hold it up while DJing to show people what I’m doing – far more engaging than screen-gazing.
Another point is that if you get one of these, you’re going to really “own” it – once you’ve chosen the configuration of the buttons and panel colour, maybe even assembled it yourself, and mapped it to your requirements, you’ve invested part of yourself into using it as the heart of your own unique DJing set-up, and are thus more likely to put the effort in to do something out of the ordinary with it. And while what you do with it may be unique to you, you’re part of a club of people who are also doing exciting things with the same kit.
For $125, I’d say that makes a Midi Fighter a pretty good value addition in your DJ gear.
• Thanks to Andy Taylor for the original loop roll script as featured in the video.
What do you use to add some extra “oomph” to your DJ set-up? Have you got a Midi Fighter, and if so, how have you got your set up to help you, DJ? Let us know in the comments.