If you’re in the market for a four-deck, four-channel DJ controller, Numark just made it a harder call for you by releasing, to much anticipation, the Numark NS6. This Serato ITCH controller promises excellent jog wheels, great build quality, and true standalone mixer capability for analogue sources, alongside a host of other pro features.
In the following, long-awaited Digital DJ Tips Numark NS6 review, we’ll help you decide if it’s the right controller for you, by thoroughly dissecting its feature set, and comparing it to similar models.
First impressions/setting up
The Numark NS6 is big. Apart from the company’s own NS7, which is the digital equivalent in size, weight and performance of two Technics record decks and a pro scratch mixer bolted together (with all the weight and size that entails), this is one of the biggest DJ controllers out there – bigger than the [s4], the [jockeyiii] and the [dn-mc6000]; and approaching the size of the [ddj-s1] and [ddj-t1].
It weighs more than all of these, too, because – on a par with the Jockey III, and unlike the Pioneer and Traktor controllers – it is made almost entirely of metal. However, that means the build quality is A1, and for those who thought the NS7 was great but just too large, the NS6 won’t seem big at all!
Features such as many input options, balanced XLRs, the full four-channel mixer, long-throw pitch adjusters, fader start toggles, large jogwheels and deck strip search ribbons immediately jump out confirming that this unit is aimed firmly at advanced users. It screams quality.
So – a controller around the size of the Pioneer controllers, but built in metal like the Reloop Jockey III or Denon DN-MC6000, and as feature-rich as some of the best systems out there (either digital or analogue). You’d expect such an item to impress, and the NS6 does indeed impress upon unboxing:
In black, white and silver with a touch of Serato red, the unit has a matt metal top, with silver metal sides that have rubberised hand-carrying indents. The front and back panels’ various controls and sockets are finished with gloss metal strips, which are painted variously with the “Numark” and “Serato” logos.
As well as the unit itself, you get the power supply (like most DJ controllers, a standard, thin-cabled, rather short generic number – a better one would have inspired more confidence), a quick start guide, your warranty, a Serato ITCH DJ software CD, and a USB cable for connecting to your computer. The box would do for carrying it around for a short while you find a suitable flight case or bag.
ITCH is famously easy to set up. You download the latest version from the Serato website (or use the CD provided), install it, plug everything in and it’s all there, working out of the box. That’s the theory, anyway, and this time it was also the practice – I had it all up and running in a matter of minutes. No configuration, no menus, no options.
(I set it up on a Mac but apart from cancelling the Windows bleat dialogues as ITCH takes control of your PC to install itself properly, the process is almost the same on a PC.)
The mixer section
The central mixer section is quite compact but not overly so – no problem for “fat fingers” here! It has four channels, each of which has a PC or analogue toggle switch to decide if it is going to control one of ITCH’s four decks or one of four external sources. You could plug in CD players, samplers, record decks, iPods, other DJs’ controllers and so on. There’s also a microphone input (a 1/4″ jack type, not an XLR).
The way the external inputs work is pretty straightforward – unlike with Traktor and Virtual DJ, Serato ITCH has no routing of external sources through software. That serves to make everything easier to understand: Your external sources are simply going through the NS6, using it as a standard DJ mixer, and going nowhere near Serato or your laptop except as part of the final output mix. This means that you can close down Serato and switch off your laptop and your decks, CDs, iPod, microphone etc and it will carry on working fine.
This exposes a limitation, however – you can’t use Serato ITCH’s effects on your external sources, and that includes adding a little reverb to the microphone, for instance. The effects are strictly reserved for digital sources. It’s probably more a Serato thing than a Numark thing, but for people used to Traktor or Virtual DJ’s flexible routing, it may be a disappointment.
However, having a true four-channel analogue mixer built in and only a toggle switch away means that the NS6 would be happy at the heart of many a complex DJ set-up. I’m thinking a hybrid CD or vinyl plus digital set-up, or even in small installations (bars or lounges with resident DJs who use a variety of sources, from vinyl and CDJs to digital, for instance) – especially as it has the separate booth and master outputs and pro XLRs round the back.
Quality-wise, the mixer knobs all have a firm centre-click and are rubberised, and the 45mm shortish-throw faders and high-quality replaceable crossfader won’t let you down.
Quality of metering
Right in the middle of the mixer section are the 12-bar VU meters. This only monitor the master output, which is a bit baffling as you really want VU meters to monitor individual channels too. Why? Because many DJs will set the gain of an incoming musical source so that the levels are just peaking “into the red” (or the white, in this case). Those who don’t, should.
What ought to happen on the NS6 is that when you press the cue button to put a particular channel into your headphones, the two VUs switch to the gain for that channel. That way, just two VUs (ie left and right) could be used for all four channels and the master output. Currently, while you can keep your overall volume “out of the red”, it’s harder to keep an eye on separate inputs.
There is one extra aid to help with this, in the form of a limiter alert in the software. ITCH has built-in limiting to hold back volume when you wouldn’t otherwise drive it into digital distortion, and when this is forced on by one of your channels or your overall output pushing things too high, a little notice appears on the screen.
So once you’ve checked the master is not peaking, you can move on to the individual gains to try and find the culprit. It’s not as good as the sensible solution of proper VU monitoring, though.
I raised this with Numark – and lo and behold, it’s coming in a future firmware upgrade, updatable from the setup panel. So job done – and a great improvement.
EQs, headphones, and crossfader features
The EQs are 100% kills. I think I’m going to stop saying I wish all gear had kill switches because they’re definitely out of vogue; but if you’re not going to have kill switches, then 100% kill EQs are the best-practice minimum. The overall sound quality through the mixer was punchy and warm, from both digital and the analogue sources (didn’t try the phono stage but I’d put money on it sounding fine).
Headphones monitoring is loud, and as well as a cue/blend control, there’s a split cue button too – useful for less-than-ideal monitoring situations, and something often missed off from modern DJ controllers.
The cue buttons combine the best of both worlds (by default, pressing a cue will turn off all other cues, but if you press one or more together, they operate together). For scratch DJs, the crossfader curve is adjustable. My scratch guru acquaintances tell me the crossfader itself is “almost” perfect for scratching, and I can report that for simple cuts and also for using the fader start function (where a deck begins to play from the cue point as soon as you open the crossfader to it), everything was more than adequate.
Indeed, it was more than that – it was all great fun to use! Stuttering vocals from acappella in this way was easy, for instance, and sounded great. There are crossfader A/B/thru toggles for all decks so you can choose behaviour here.
A record function in the software records the complete output of the unit (so including all the analogue channels too).
The deck and transport controls
The size of some pro CDJ players, each “deck” section of the NS7 looks ready for business, with a jumbo jog wheel, an excellent long-throw pitch control, and well-spaced play/pause, cue and sync buttons, plus logically placed layer buttons (for switching between each pair of decks).
Aesthetically, the jog wheels look a little out of place somehow – maybe it’s because they’re silver, or have rather cheap-looking plastic edging (the top is metal). In use, though, they are ultra responsive and completely reliable. They’re pleasing to use, weighted correctly, and most importantly of all, manipulations of your audio files sound great. Scratching and spinbacks are indistinguishable from their vinyl equivalents.
There is an illuminated ring around the edge of each jog that lights up in a clockwise direction when the deck is playing and moves to indicate the direction of travel on spinbacks etc. It is nice but not essential, – although the fact that it lights either white or red depending which of each jogwheels’ two decks is currently activated may prove to be its most useful purpose. Whatever, it looks nice. Pioneer has a similar function on the DDJ-S1 and DDJ-T1 controllers.
The pitch range is adjustable from +/-8 to +/-50%, and there’s a master tempo to lock the key when doing so, that works best when closest to the original tempo (as with all such algorithms). A scratch mode switches in exactly the same scratch behaviour as nearly all controllers – in this case, the jogs are capacitive, not microswitched like the Pioneer and Traktor Kontrol models, so your finger very lightly touching the top of the jog in scratch mode engages the scratch functionality (and, incidentally, switches out the master tempo momentarily for a better sound).
Navigating through your tracks
There are five hot cues per side, which work exactly as you’d expect, with a shift-to-delete function. There’s a skip button that, when held (and assuming the current track has been beatgridded), lets you skip through it using the jog while remaining beat-synced. Having a shift-lock on this button would have been nice to save the need for two-handed use.
That brings us nicely on to the strip search, a ribbon at the top of each deck for quick searching through a tune. Bizarrely, the manual recommends you use the computer for “scrubbing” (ie “quickly flicking”) through a track rather than using this control, a control patently designed to do just this!
Maybe this is because you need to apply a bit of pressure with your finger before dragging to scrub quickly through a tune – something you don’t expect having experienced the sensitivity of the jogwheel. However, if you do so it’s perfectly OK for scrubbing.
Instead, the manual recommends you use it when you know which part of a track you want to jump to (beginning, middle, end etc), by touching in the right place. There are LEDs along the top of each strip search ribbon to indicate which part of the track is currently playing, for instant feedback. It would have been nice if these LEDs remained lit all the time and flashed to warm of the impending end of a track, too.
There are a few other controls here – a tap button for quick synchronising of effects if necessary (more on the effects below), a censor/reverse function, and old-style pitch bend controls.
Beatmatching, beatgridding and syncing
Serato ITCH has beatgridding nowadays like Traktor, so if you’re a beatgridding-style of DJ, you’ll love it, especially as Serato’s beatgridding is better than Traktor’s (it has an “elastic” function to deal with material of varying tempo). Best of all, controls to set and tweak beatgrids are right there on each deck.
Sync snaps to beatgrid if set, and if you turn beatgrids off or haven’t set them, it snaps to BPM and the nearest transient. A system of master and slave decks regarding tempos decides which deck a new track snaps to, and that deck is the one that controls the master BPM.
There’s a soft pickup system for taking control of a BPM gracefully, and BPM arrows next to the pitch fader send you off in the right direction to take the BPM over. (If this is Double Dutch to you, don’t worry. It makes sense once you’ve done it a couple of times.) ITCH 2.0 will have more intuitive master tempo functionality anyway – as it stands, this is as simple as any systems out there right now.
As I say you can bypass sync altogether if you want, and the manual pitch controls, plus an innovative BPM bar of LEDs that show you which deck is currently playing faster and by how much, make “manual” mixing lots of fun. (The BPM readouts on screen and the high-precision colour waveforms don’t hurt here, either).
There’s a 10-button loop section above each deck. You can store up to nine loops plus one “on the fly”, which equals 10 loops per track.
You can set them either manually or automatically, and there are dedicated buttons for instant 1, 2, 4 and 8-beat loops. There’s also shift functionality on the same buttons for fractions of beats to allow you to execute a “loop roll” (where the track “plays” underneath, and takes up where it would have been when you exit your loop roll).
It took me a little while to get used to the NS6’s looping. You need to use the mouse to lock and delete loops too, which isn’t ideal for me – but it’s awesomely powerful once you get the hang of it, especially as you can set loops in offline mode too (ITCH has an offline mode for when your controller isn’t plugged in that left you organise your library and set cues and loops too).
If you’re used to simple looping like the system on with the Vestax VCI-300, you’re in for a bit of a shock learning the way this works, but with four decks, the curve is worth it.
The 12 effects across two separate effects units cover the basics and include the all-important filters (separate high-pass and low-pass), with the wet/dry mix being handled somewhat unusually by a mini fader, and the ability to change a single parameter per effect.
Each effect can be switched on and off and can be assigned to any number of channels and/or to the master output. There’s no daisy-chaining like Traktor – in fact, compared to Traktor the effects are basic, as they always have been in ITCH.
Having said that, many DJs stick to the filters, and whether you prefer one-knob filters like the Traktor Kontrol S4 or separate high-pass and low-pass like here is a personal preference. (At least the filters are next to each other in the effects cycle in the Numark S6’s incarnation of ITCH, unlike with the Xone:DX where they’re a few effects apart, a source of annoyance for DJing who mainly use filters with that particular controller.)
One thing performance DJs will appreciate is the LEDs around the parameter endless rotaries – your effects settings are remembered, and fed back to you next time you activate that effect.
Post fader goodness
There’s one crucial fact about these effects though – they’re post-fader. That is an advantage for scratch DJs cutting with the crossfader who like to use FX simultaneously, and for those “normal” DJs who know the heck what I’m talking about and are now nodding in agreement!
What this basically means is that you can put a delay-style effect on a track (say an echo) and then when you cut the track (switch it off, turn down its fader, crossfade away from it), the effect plays out to its end. Pre-fader effects would cut dead, meaning echoes that have begun (for instance), don’t get the chance to “end”. That’s why it only matters for effects that involve a “tail” – echo, delay, reverb. The Kontrol S4, as an example, doesn’t have this, which is a bugbear with some users.
For me, the effects in ITCH are more than enough – but I am not an effect-led DJ, preferring to use them sparingly while spending most of my time getting the records in the right order! Traktor has the most versatile effects out there, though, so if that’s crucial to you, you may want to consider a Traktor controller instead.
ITCH receives praise for its library, but the truth is it doesn’t do very much – it’s just that what it does do, it does well! Whereas the forthcoming ITCH 2.0 promises smart crates and drag and drop music (for throwing a set quickly on to a USB for example), the current version delivers the basics: good iTunes integration (including tag editing), simple browsing and crate preparation, and reliable history recording.
The NS6’s controls cover all the basics and mean that for most of the time, you’ll never have to touch your laptop. As such it works well.
I have two bugbears, though, one directed at ITCH and one at the NS6. The ITCH one concerns the lack of preview listen. Traktor, for instance, has really good quick listen features, so you can flick through your library without having to load a track onto a deck to have a check of what it sounds like in your headphones. ITCH would benefit from something similar. Using the main search knob’s press-to-click to activate it and then turning while held to scrub would work fine, similar to the Kontrol S4 – especially as pressing this rotary currently just duplicates the functionality of the crates button.
My bugbear with the NS6 is the same bugbear I have with some other Serato controllers. Indeed, the only ITCH controller that gets this right to my knowledge is the Allen & Heath Xone:DX. The problem?
So say you’re DJing a multi-genre set from a pre-prepared crate. You want to play half an hour of house, then half an hour of hip hop, then half an hour of pop. So you want to be able to sort by “genre” column, right? Then all the house etc is together.
Trouble is, you can’t because the only options you get in hardware (via shift plus a library key) with the NS6 are to sort by song, artist, BPM, track number or album. What would be better would be the way the Xone:DX does it: It sorts by the first four columns, so you choose which columns you want to sort by dragging your four most important ones to the front.
I always sort by BPM, key and genre multiple times during my set, and to not have to resort to the mouse would be a big advantage. It would be a simple mapping tweak in other software, but the thing with ITCH is, you really are stuck with what you get. I wish Numark had found a way to do this.
Using with DVS systems and other software
Unlike the Traktor Kontrol S4 which works natively with Traktor Scratch Pro 2 to offer seamless DVS/controller access to all four Traktor decks (albeit at extra cost), any DVS set-up using the NS6 would be two systems melded together.
In the case of Traktor, you could have another DJ using his DVS system and Audio 6 or 10 through the same mixer, but you’d be using the NS6 as an analogue mixer so none of the Midi buttons would work. That DJ would probably want to use an X1 or some other Midi control box too.
Same with Serato Scratch, although it raises the intriguing possibility of having both Scratch and ITCH running on the same machine and sharing the same library. (Probably not very practical and I’m not even sure if it’d work, but with a Rane box and SSL set-up and running analogue through the mixer, you could have two DJs playing off the same laptop and music collection, one using DVS and one using the controller, but both using the mixer!) Bottom line, though, is that ITCH is not DVS software and therefore that there are more sensible ways of DJing with either of the leading DVS systems than using the NS6. The capability is there if you want it, though.
On to other software: the interesting thing is that there are official mappings for Virtual DJ and Traktor available too. It is beyond the scope of this review to test these, although anecdotally the Virtual DJ mapping is more successful than the Traktor one as far as jog performance goes.
Really, you’re buying the NS6 at a premium because you’re paying for ITCH software. Once you’ve got it, upgrades are free forever and every function is one-to-one mapped by the makers to the controls on the NS6. Frankly using other software with it is not going to be high on most users’ minds, quite rightfully.
The Numark NS6 is a lovely controller. Well built, nicely laid out, gorgeous jogwheel performance, true pro feature set, great sound quality, lots of flexibility, but still remaining essentially easy to understand and restrained in its feature set: there’s little not to like. It integrates perfectly with ITCH, and offer a stylish, fun and professional DJing solution right from the box.
Its only direct competitor is the Allen & Heath Xone:DX, as that’s the only other four-deck Serato hardware controller there is. They’re both great: both are built to last from metal, although the Xone:DX is smaller and thus more portable (it’s lighter too).
However, the NS6’s jogwheels blow the DX’s out of the water – absolutely no contest. Also, the Xone:DX can’t run as a standalone mixer, and doesn’t have so much flexibility on external inputs. The Xone:DX also has infinite rotary pitch faders, which might not suit some people, but which I quite like (no need to reset them when switching between decks).
Against the other leading four-deck controllers, it’s good value compared to the Traktor Kontrol S4 and Pioneer DDJ-T1, which are both not constructed to the same standard as the Numark and have inferior jogwheels. However, those are respectively the best Traktor controller with regards to hardware/software integration that there is (and as Traktor is powerful software, the Traktor Kontrol S4 is thus a powerful controller), and in the case of the Pioneer, the closest in “feel” to CD DJing in a digital all-in-one (albeit lower-end Pioneer CD CDJing – think CDJ350/400, not CDJ 900/1000/2000)…
Build-wise, the NS6 is comparable to the Reloop Jockey III and the Denon DN-MC6000, both of which are also metal, and both of which can operate as external mixers, although again not for as many inputs (the Jockey III only has a two-channel mixer, too, so lots of switching needed here).
These controllers, though, can both use Traktor’s routing to run external inputs through effects and EQ – particularly useful if you’re a mobile DJ who wants microphone effects (the Denon handles microphones best out of all of them, by the way).
Like the NS6, the Denon and Reloop models also both work as standalone mixers. The Jockey III is smaller than the NS6, although still heavy and substantial, the Denon is pretty small and thus easier to transport without dropping features. Both have excellent jogs and (especially since Reloop has just upgraded the firmware for the Jockey III), both integrate tightly with Traktor. The NS6 still has the edge for scratching though over both, as its jog implementation with ITCH is peerless.
So which is best?
While you may be looking for me to give you a “this one is best, that one is worst” proclamation, it can’t happen. That’s because the answer for you depends on what size of controller you want, how important standalone mixing is to you, how many external inputs you need, what software you choose to go with, whether you want to add DVS, how important scratching and good jogs are to you, how important effects are in your sets, whether you’ll be plugging straight into a PA or another mixer… the list goes on.
It is getting genuinely hard to choose between the top-end four-channel controllers. Your choice is ultimately going to be led first by software (that’ll narrow it down a lot), then by the particular combination of features as outlined above that you deem important for your needs. Of course, you’ll have to consider cost too, and the NS6 looks good value even though it’s as expensive as any of the other models we’ve mentioned.
While none of these controllers will give you everything you wish for, having used it for the past week or so, I can report that for many DJs, the Numark NS6 alongside Serato ITCH will come pretty close to perfection.
Have you got or do you want an NS6? Are you a Traktor user who’s tempted to go down the ITCH route because of this controller? Or are there features missing here that make it a no deal for you? Please let us know your thoughts in the comments.