When we wrote in the introduction to our four-deck DJ controllers buyer’s guide that we had only included controllers with jogwheels, reader Jayson Mongan took issue: “Nowadays, with being able to run four decks and having a sync button, and being able to save, load and loop cue points, is there really a need for jogwheels, considering how much real estate they take up and how little they actually provide?” he asked.
Long-time digital DJing evangelist Richie Hawtin, in a NAMM show round-up on his blog, summed up the raft of new controllers he saw there in a similar vein:
“I’ll be honest, I went to NAMM hoping to have epiphany and meet the perfect controller, alas, I found myself in a sea of mediocrity and finally the only controller that really stood out from the pack was the 4midiloop device.” he said. “It is probably not for everyone as it doesn’t have the huge jogwheels (which I hate) which seem to waste so much real estate on everyone else’s controllers. But it offers a clear and calculated Traktor inspired layout of knobs, switches, and faders… for not only two, but four decks!”
So if jogwheels struggle to offer much control over ever-more-complex DJ software, and with some of the biggest DJs are starting to question their very existence, today we’re asking: Is it time to reinvent the (jog)wheel?
The case for and against jogwheels
What Jayson and Richie don’t say is that there are things you can do with jogwheels that you can’t replicate with knobs and buttons – like scratching, for instance. Good jogwheels “feel” nice to use, offering tactile control over the music, which is a big part of what DJing has been about up to this point, after all.
And also, shouldn’t DJing be about building on the past, not throwing it out and starting anew? If someone reinvented the car to not need a steering wheel, would we actually want to drive it still, or is the act of holding and turning that wheel too ingrained in us as what driving actually is?
On the other hand, there ain’t nothing physically on those moving discs any more! They’re just a way of getting to the music and controlling it. What Jayson and Richie are saying is that they’re a relic, an unnecessary hangover from the past. And they’re getting in the way. The thing is, goes the argument, maybe jogwheels are hanging on in there simply because change hurts.
Pioneer’s new DDJ-T1 and DDJ-S1 DJ controllers, for instance, which have huge jogwheels, are predicted to do well precisely because they are more familiar to mainstream CD DJs than any other digital DJ controllers to date, meaning CD DJs are expected to be able to make the switch to them relatively painlessly.
The best jogwheel DJ controllers do an amazing job of squeezing the whole two-deck DJ experience into a small box – the Vestax VCI-300, for instance, just feels great to DJ with… as long as you’re happy to do it the old way. Once you start wanting to add in loops, samples and effects, solutions like this creak and eventually break… they’re designed, after all, for the old way of DJing. It’s telling that Native Instruments, with its Kontrol S4, moved the jogwheels to the back of the unit…
It’s telling that Native Instruments, with its Kontrol S4, moved the jogwheels to the back of the unit and shrunk them in favour of bigger, more prominent knobs and buttons. This first official controller for Traktor Pro (probably the most complicated and versatile of the “traditional” DJ programs) may be clearing the ground for Native Instruments to release a DJ controller without jogwheels at all.
(Hell, they already have – the X1. While this was designed to sit alongside Traktor Scratch and control vinyl, innovative DJs such as Domas have instead chosen to hook a couple of these up at the heart of knob-and-button four-deck systems.)
DJing without jogwheels is nothing new
When I first switched to digital DJing after 15 years of using vinyl, it was on the very first Hercules DJ controller. I’d been asked to review it for a magazine, but after a while I realised it wasn’t fun at all to use. So I ended up creating a custom keyboard mapping for Virtual DJ and using the laptop keyboard instead, with which I ended up DJing in pro clubs for years.
Back then, people like me were plugging any Midi devices they could into DJ software and mapping controls just to see what was possible – but not necessarily ever having actual jogwheels. Indeed, it’s only recently that jogwheels have got good enough to be fun to use for digital DJing anyway.
And dedicated DJ gear without jogwheels isn’t new either. Controllers like the Vestax TR-1, while never really taking off, have existed for a while, and the critical reaction to the long-awaited-but-finally-here 4midiloop from Faderfox shows that done well, such controllers can offer unprecedented levels of control over the exciting new features of DJ software that allow forward-thinking jocks to push the boundaries while letting autosync take care of the beatmatching.
The Ableton Live effect
Of course, the stunning popularity of Ableton Live (stunning considering it is not meant for DJing, and is not by any means an easy program to start using at all, never mind DJing with in public) has brought with it its own spread of controllers like the Akai APC20 and APC40, the Paul Van Dyk-favoured Vestax VCM-600, and the Novation Launchpad (which can be paired with something like the Novation Nocturn for a complete Ableton DJ rig). Such set-ups are becoming more popular in DJ boxes – and noe of the above feature jogwheels.
And with Serato’s The Bridge mashing DJ software up with Ableton Live (currently for the Serato Scratch DVS system but coming soon for ITCH controllers), and technical know-how such as how to sync Ableton and Traktor on the same machine becoming more widespread, the boundaries between traditional DJ software and more modern producer/DJ programs are blurring.
How long before a killer mutation of one of these programs really nails the new way of DJing, and inspires its own raft of controllers to make proper use of all of its features? When this happens, you can bet that those controllers won’t have a jogwheel in sight.
A bit of perspective…
Of course, it’s all about music at the end of the day. The basic impulse of DJing is to play stuff you like to people in the hope they’ll like it too. You can do that on everything from the smallest DJ set-up in the world to a custom rig as weird and wonderful as you like (5 NanoKontrols and 4 LPD8s is the set-up that Jayson who inspired this thread uses, for instance). Whatever floats your boat.
However, predicting the future helps us to assess what we’re doing right now, and the jogwheel issue is one that’s right at the heart of digital DJing. So we’ll ask again – is Richie Hawtin right? Have jogwheels had their day? Will you still be using a controller with jogwheels in five years’ time?
Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.