Imagine having many of the best bits about digital DJing – waveforms, sync and beatmatch, beat-tied loops and effects, all your music with you – but without the need to carry around a laptop as well as a DJ controller, and without any setting up whenever you want to play.
Stanton’s SCS.4DJ is a DJ controller with a built-in computer and colour screen, that aims to give you exactly this. About the same size as any other compact DJ controller, this two-deck model offers most of the functions of a fully fledged controller/laptop DJ systems, all in one lightweight unit – no laptop required.
And at US$499, it also appears to be great value too. Did digital DJing for the masses just move a step closer? Let’s find out…
First impressions and setting up
The black plastic unit looks at first glance like other consumer DJ consoles – until you spot the horizontal angled screen top middle, that is. The unit is quite lightweight, being mainly plastic, but it feels durable and the jogs feel expensive.
It seems to be aimed at hobby and part-time DJs, first-timers, and maybe even pro or ex-pros who just want something to spin a few tunes on at their pool parties and friends’ weddings, without the need to hike around a full set-up. It doesn’t have any built-in storage for tunes, relying on you to “bring the music”, on a USB stick, a portable hard drive, or – as we’ll see later – even your iPod or smartphone.
Most of the controls are instantly familiar. There are two jogwheels, with play/pause, cue, sync and tap buttons at the front of each, and “touch” and “scratch” buttons too (more on these later); pitch sliders and pitch bend buttons; various volume controls plus mic and headphone jacks; and effects and looping sections. The mixer part has two faders, a crossfader, three-band EQ, headphone monitoring, and VU meters.
The screen is a bit bigger than that on an iPhone, and has four buttons vertically to both the left and the right; four bigger buttons underneath it; plus two little round “back” and “enter” buttons underneath those.
Round the back of the unit is an on/off button, the AC socket (the unit needs AC power to work), 1/4″ TRS master outputs, RCA master outputs, USB in/outs and a Kensington lock hole.
Finally, underneath is a removable panel revealing a hollow interior section, with two USB sockets.
(Close inspection also reveals a USB socket in the top right of the unit, under a rubber cover, which makes four in total.)
To get going, you switch the unit on (it takes a few seconds to boot up – remember, it’s a real computer in there), and introduce some kind of media with music on it. The easiest thing is just to put a set’s worth of music on a USB stick and plug that in either at the top or around the back. It reads .m3u playlists too.
My USB key was wobbly in the top socket and indeed, one time I accidentally disconnected it by touching it; this has been corrected on the production units, according to Stanton. Of course, plugging in safely around the back is the best bet. Safest of all, you could also put a hard drive or two in the slots underneath and inside the unit.
And that’s it! It felt strange not hooking it up to a PC, or booting up DJ software, but of course, with an all-in-one unit, all you need to do is introduce music. You can plug it into a laptop if you want, so in theory, you could leave your hard drive in there and transfer music across. Apparently, there’s some library software on the way, but it’s not there yet.
In order to DJ with this, it needs to analyse your music first – like all DJ systems. You can DJ with unanalysed music, but you’ll get limited functionality (no waveforms, no looping… ) and the unit is sluggish while it’s analysing.
And it takes a long time to analyse – it was considerably slower than my MacBook Pro analysing tracks in Serato ITCH for instance. While it only has to do this once, it’s certainly worth setting it going to do it overnight or even over a longer time period if you have a big collection.
The unit adds three folders on any drive where it finds music, containing waveform, BPM and cue point information for the music. This means that it’ll always know what it needs to know about your tunes once you’ve analysed them once – presuming you don’t delete those folders, of course. It also means there has to be enough room on your media for the SCS.4DJ to add this information, or it will inform you that the songs won’t be analysed. About 15% extra space is right.
Ways of adding music
It’s worth thinking about how you’d organise your music with this – if you had it all permanently on removable media that you could plug into your home computer and then take with you to plug into the SCS.4DJ while out and about, that would be ideal, for instance.
But there’s another way, which might just prove to be the best bit about the whole thing: it certainly had me buzzing with excitement when I discovered it, as it’s something the manual was coy about. It’s this: the SCS.4DJ will play nicely with iTunes music on an iPhone!
The ability to roll up at a gig, connect your phone (keeps it charged, too…) and start playing from your whole iTunes collection, smart playlists included, is something I’ve wished for in DJ equipment for a while now, and this is the first time I’ve seen it working in a modern-style controller. Excitingly, I tried it with an old iPod, my partner’s Blackberry, and with a friend’s Android phone, and it worked with those too.
(A bonus here is that because the SCS.4DJ takes a little while to analyse tunes, if anyone else asks you to plug their device in, you can explain that it’s only set up to work with yours. Bingo!)
Let’s be clear – it’s reading the MP3s direct from the phone, not taking an audio feed. This is something totally new. You can plug multiple devices in, and because the SCS.4DJ will recognise the music on them all and leave its analysis folders wherever it finds music, it can cope fine with this. You can even hit “rec” to record your set, and it’ll let you choose which media to record a WAV to, letting you switch to any other device should you fill one up.
This combination of not messing with your actual MP3s, having housekeeping folders in the same directories as your music, and happily working with multiple sources, makes the unit flexible and easy to use.
It’s clear a lot of thought has gone into the way it handles its media, which is good news, as this is something that will obviously be crucial to its success – and one of the things I knew they had to get right when I first saw the unit back in April at Musikmesse. They have got it right.
Browsing and sorting your music
So with your music analysed (wherever it may be coming from), you’re ready to start browsing it in order to DJ. As stated, the SCS.4DJ recognises iTunes playlists, but it recognises any other standard .m3u playlists too.
You can also make your own playlists direct from the unit: you just browse through your tunes list by pressing “browse” then using the big wheel at the centre of the controller, and press “ToPlaylist”(one of the screen’s context keys) to add anything you want to “pull out” from your crate to a new playlist.
The unit can save playlists to hard drives, USB drives and so on, but not, I found, to iOS devices, presumably for integrity reasons. (Chances are if you’re integrating it with your iTunes music this way, you’ve already worked your playlists out there, so it’s no big deal.) Of course, you don’t need to do this at all – you can just play straight from the collection. Playlists are automatically made as you DJ, however, so if you play one week and want to play from the same basic set at the same venue the following week, there the tunes all are.
I found the music browsing and playlist part of the SCS.4DJ to be surprisingly good to use. You can easily sort by title, artist, BPM, time, album, genre and past DJ sessions, and there are thoughtful touches too:
For instance, when you’ve sorted by BPM, there are context buttons for jumping +/-10BPM, and when your music is sorted by something alphabetical, you can jump forward and back a letter easily. The search function works quickly – you simply “type” in the first few letters using the jogwheel – but you can also add a USB keyboard if you think you’ll be doing this a lot.
One omission is recognition of the “key” column in MP3s, so you need a little workaround if you’re the type of DJ who mixes in key. The most obvious way is to add the key information to the front of the Comments field of your MP3s using your key software (Mixed in Key can do this for you), and then sort by Comments on the SCS.4DJ.
Analysis, beatgridding and automix
The SCS.4DJ does a great job of BPM analysis. However, if it doesn’t get it right, you can’t adjust the BPM yourself past doubling or halving the reading, so sync becomes worthless. Time to call on those manual beatmatching skills…
To be fair, the first firmware upgrade will let you shift the beatgrid to line it up if the BPM has been guessed correctly but is slightly off the beat (the usual scenario when software gets BPMs and phasing wrong), which is going to work for 95% of the music most DJs play with.
The fact that the SCS.4DJ makes a good job of analysing and beatgridding is important because the unit is sold on its sync and “Auto DJ” ability. Auto DJ will keep the music going when you’re too busy or not feeling confident enough to do it yourself: It’s easy to take over the controls when you want a go. A definite plus point for beginners (although automix DJ sets are always instantly recognisable as such…).
Real DJing with the SCS.4DJ
So you might think this is just a flash toy – but you’d be wrong. To start with, the waveforms are excellent, better than some computer DJ software. They’re colour and have clear beatgrid markers to help with sync, loops and so on. This is one of the major innovations that this unit offers, and why for DJs used to laptop DJing, it will feel great to use right from the off.
Furthermore, the platters have been tuned to mimic vinyl as closely as possible – they are pseudo-weighted in software so when you execute a spinback, for instance, it ends naturally even when the physical platter has stopped. This feels a bit unnatural to the seasoned vinyl/one-to-one platter DJ, but it makes sense for the sector of the market this is aimed at.
Scratch performance is very good, and the only time I managed to make it fail was doing ridiculously over-the-top spinbacks, which introduced breakups and digital distortion. There’s one feature I’ve not seen on any other controller, which I really loved. It’s called “touch”. When the “touch” toggle button is enabled, the feature works sort of like the “cup” button on some controllers, which jumps to a cue point and starts playing when your hand leaves the button.
In this instance, though, the touch button makes the top of the platter exhibit the same action. Touch the platter, and the track stops, jumping and pausing at the cue point. But your hand is right on the platter – just where it wants to be for scratching!
So basically it makes it really intuitive to just grab the platter and start scratching a pre-prepared beat, and then the track just begins to play from that beat when the platter is released. The platters work in a pretty standard way otherwise – the metal top part is for scratching (when scratch is turned on), the edge is for nudging, and they feel solid enough in use, with a slightly rough metal top and knobbly rubber edge.
One thing I didn’t like was that the scratch functionality doesn’t turn on automatically when the track is paused if it happens to be turned off. This should at least be an option – if you’re not a scratch DJ so you don’t normally have “scratch” turned on, you still need the jogwheel to let you spin through the track looking for a good cue point when the track is paused. This option would save you having to manually turn it on to do so.
Speaking of cueing, you can’t set multiple cues: there’s strictly one per track. However, the unit will remember your cue points so at least you can set the first or a suitable downbeat for your music and have it there for next time. Holding down the “scratch” button lets you use the jogwheel to scrub really quickly through a song, which is a welcome additional function.
In the mix
Once you’re up and running, your attention will naturally turn to the mixer section.
The EQs are great – they cut to kill, so switching bass lines and so on is easy. There is auto gain so there aren’t any gain controls: If you’re a “gain abuser”, you’ll, therefore, have to learn to keep your channel faders at two-thirds to give yourself a bit of leeway.
I missed the gains – I like to use them to extend fading outros on songs, for instance – but I doubt a beginner would and you can see why they’ve been left off: Indeed, overall while the unit’s controls may seem a little basic to a pro, they’d still be pretty daunting to a beginner, and it appears that Stanton has therefore tried to keep everything nice and simple without sacrificing too much flexibility. I think they’ve got the balance about right.
Metering is good. There are seven-bar main VU meters, plus deck A and deck B level LEDs, that flick from green to red when the channel is too loud. As there are no gains, the only way to really overdrive a channel is to push the EQs way past 12 o’clock. Still, these LEDs should help to instil good habits in new DJs.
Looping works exactly as you’d expect, and there’s only one loop allowed per track, which is always beatmatched – no manual option at all. There’s a snap function that snaps to the nearest beat if you want it, and you can set default loop length in the system menu.
The effects section is basic, but the filter sounds good, flange too, delay approximates a delay effect without giving you much control over things, and “slice” is kind of a sampling glitch-type effect but which can also rather cunningly repeat a loop roll allowing you to use it as a kind of “third deck” to open a few doors when mixing.
Slice is different from the other effects in that the track continues to play underneath it while it’s activated – it’s a bit like the beatslicer in Virtual DJ, but more random as you ramp it up.
More about the computer
I’ve covered the library section of the built-in computer, but I’d like to now look at what else you’ve got there.
If you’ve ever navigated a digital camera OS, with options layered within options, and the ubiquitous “back” and “enter” buttons for confirming or exiting menus, this will hold no mystery for you – it’s pretty much exactly the same idea.
There are four buttons across the bottom of the screen. These let you look at the two tracks currently playing (you can switch between one screen showing the cover art and 1-2-3-4 beat counters plus small waveforms, and another showing the full-colour waveforms), the library, the current playlist, and the system settings respectively. As mentioned earlier, there are context-sensitive keys down the sides of the screen whose functions vary depending upon which screen you’re on.
At all times there’s a bar across the top of the screen giving you information on the two tracks currently playing: It has play state, title, artist, tempo, BPM and effects settings.
Although the screen isn’t touch sensitive, it would still have been nice to have some kind of coverflow for browsing music, as lots of DJs still think in pictures and having just a list is not very exciting. Maybe something for a future firmware update.
The system settings are where all the tweaking takes place. Here you can set a whole wealth of options that rightfully belong on far more expensive controllers: headphone split, pitch slider range, auto cue and loop length options, platter start/break/release speed, crossfader curve (and reverse!), auto DJ mix settings, “soft takeover” settings (for taking manual control of the pitch), and various display options.
It’s a good idea that these are tucked away in the options because the unit “looks” complicated enough as it is, and many users aren’t ever going to want crossfader curve adjust and reverse (for instance), so why clutter the hardware with them?
Finally, I’d like to point out that the unit can play MP4 video files (although there’s no way of outputting the signal), and can also be used as a Midi controller for Traktor and Virtual DJ (and any other software you map to it) – the manual points to more information on the Stanton site, but I’m writing this before its launch, and that information isn’t there yet for me to investigate further. Stanton says its planning a “mammoth” Midi capabilities update, so stay tuned for that.
I am excited about this unit. Sure, it isn’t a pro DJ device (no audio thru for a backup in case it crashes, no multiple cue points, and no way of routing the microphone through the effects, plus consumer build quality are things that should all make that clear) – although having said that, it’s still better than it should rightfully be for the price.
But that’s really not important here – this thing succeeds where other previous attempts at making a simple-to-use digital DJ controller have failed. It’s like the autotune of DJing, the great democratiser. Now, more than ever, anyone can be a DJ – you just need a pile of music you’d like to play to a crowd of people, and you’re off.
You don’t need a computer, you don’t need to understand Midi mapping, you don’t need to set up sound cards or software options, you don’t even need to mix if you don’t want to (although it will be hard to resist, it’s that much fun).
Instead, you just plug in your MP3 player, USB stick or smartphone, and after your tunes are analysed, you play. This family-friendly device even has a “lock” function so your kids or pushy/drunken friends can’t mess with the music while you nip to the bathroom!
As I say, there have been units that have tried to do this before, but they’ve all failed because they haven’t had the “best bits” of DJ software as the Stanton does. They need two USB sticks, or they have rubbish library navigation, or they don’t let you see any kind of waveforms. In short, 100% consumer hardware DJ controllers up to now have sucked.
Stanton makes a big deal about the Auto DJ and sync functions, as befits a DJ console aimed at consumers, many of whom won’t have all the DJ skills present and correct (or indeed the time to hunch over the decks for the full duration of the family barbecue…), and in this area, the company has succeeded – the truth is, it’s pretty hard to sound bad on one of these.
But more than that, the SCS.4DJ is fun to use for anyone who does know what they’re doing, or who is prepared to put the time in to learn. The “touch” function is genuinely innovative and will have scratch DJs queuing up for a go, and I can’t state enough how good it is to be able to DJ from whatever device – USB stick, removable drive, smartphone – you happen to have your music on. It seems so simple, but the work that has gone into making it thus must have been substantial.
If you look at Stanton’s product releases over the past few years – the tiny, no-moving-parts SCS.3 system that was in many ways a precursor to the new Novation Twitch, the SCS.1 motorised mammoth DJ system (the precursor to Numark’s NS7), and now the SCS.4DJ – there’s evidence of market-leading thinking in all of them.
The company hasn’t always succeeded, but with the SCS.4DJ, it’s got it right. The risk with building a unit with a built-in computer is that the operating system sucks and everyone gets frustrated using it, but the thoughtful file browsing and playlist system, the ability to work smoothly with consumer media, and the wonderful waveforms, combined with convincing scratch performance and great sound quality, mean that in this case, the opposite is true – it all works well, and you get more and more delighted with it as you’re using it.
And that’s me speaking as a pro DJ – as a consumer buying this as his or her first DJ controller, it’s simply is going to blow you away, especially at this price point. You’ll probably wonder why anyone ever did it with a computer at all.
Stanton has a winner on its hands, and digital DJing has just taken another massive leap towards the mainstream.
Does this look like the ideal first controller for you? Are you a pro DJ who’d consider this as a “second” controller? Are the days of the laptop numbered? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.