Pioneer came late to the digital DJing party, at least as far as controller DJing goes. But earlier this year it launched the DDJ-S1 and the DDJ-T1. We’ve already reviewed the DDJ-S1 here, but we’ve yet to take a close look at the DDJ-T1.
One of the main differences between the two controllers is that the DDJ-S1 is for Serato ITCH software, and the DDJ-T1 is for Traktor. When Traktor Pro 2 came out, Pioneer followed up with a Traktor 2 version of the software for the DDJ-T1, and we wanted to review the unit with this software in place, as this is what new buyers will be using it with out of the box.
First impressions/setting up
The unit is big! Everything is jumbo compared to the majority of DJ controllers, so it feels well spaced out, with big jogwheels (similar to those on Pioneer’s lower-end CDJ players), long-throw pitch faders, a decent-sized mixer section, and big play/pause and cue buttons in the typical Pioneer styling.
There are also big (removable) plastic feet raising the unit up to a good few inches from the surface it’s placed on, further adding to its stature. It’s a similar size to the Numark NS6, but bulkier due to those feet (however, it’s also predominantly plastic albeit with a metal chassis, so it’s lighter than the Numark unit).
It is mid metallic grey in colour with darker jogwheels and a mix of mid-grey and black knobs and faders. Overall the impression is of a solid, imposing and built-for-business DJ controller, which while not exactly made with the most expensive components, is built to last and do a job.
Because of its size, you tend to adopt the pose of a “traditional” DJ much more when using it compared to tiny controllers, because you can stand in the middle of the unit and both hands then move out to the sides to control the jogs, unlike web using some smaller controllers, when from afar you appear to be DJing with fingers twiddling around in front of you!
A quick glance at the front reveals the mic and headphones inputs, and round the back are ins and outs, and the usual USB and power sockets (the unit comes with a power supply but can also work from USB power at a push, albeit with reduced LED lighting and no pretty jogwheel effects).
So to set up. Install software (all units from late August 2011, ie a couple of weeks ago at the time of writing, come with Traktor 2 Pioneer Edition, but you can get a free upgrade if you buy earlier stock), install drivers (if on Windows), plug in, run setup wizard, set audio settings, and in theory you’re off.
In my experience (as happened this time, and often with Traktor) it’s never that simple, but a reboot, a bit of unplugging and plugging in again and some head scratching seems to lead to the onscreen controls finally responding to the unit.
So prior to getting stuck in, let’s observe that the jogs have lovely red LEDs to indicate movement around their circumferences; all the square and rectangular buttons have various yellow, green or red backlighting to indicate state; and that a big omission in my view is apparent: that of VU meters. Of course, there are VUs on the screen, but I want to mix looking at my mixer, not at the computer screen.
Let’s look at the software to start with. You get Traktor 2 Pioneer edition, which is basically the LE edition of Traktor with some of its more obvious limitations removed.
For instance, you can record with this version (I don’t think you can with LE on any other controller) and you can use four decks. Apart from that, it comes with all the main improvements of Traktor 2 – better waveforms, waveform zoom and improved sync being the standout ones. Overall, the software does what most users will require it to do out of the box, but controllerists would not live with the lack of “proper” effects (Traktor’s advanced mode is not available so you’re tied to six effects in total in chained mode).
Sample decks, what sample decks?
Of course, one of the big draws of Traktor Pro 2 is the sample decks. It is not possible to use Traktor Pro 2’s sample decks with the DDJ-T1 out of the box, as the supplied software doesn’t support them. However, if you’re a Traktor Pro 2 user, there’s a mapping available officially from Pioneer that allows you to use them; although it doesn’t map all functions, it does a decent job of mapping the main ones.
Such a post-release fix is always going to be shoehorned, not least because there’s no indication on the controls themselves as to their sample deck functions, but once you’ve learned them you’ll be able to at least use them. The Traktor Kontrol S4 has definitely got the edge here though as it’s currently the only Traktor controller out there actually designed to use the sample decks from the ground up.
Good enough, but…
This unit is to me aimed at DJs migrating from other Pioneer gear (say, a two CDJ-350 and DJM-400 set up), and the software does the job to put the familiar functionality into their hands, with a few bells and whistles too. So it’s good enough in this respect; Pioneer has ensured that as far as Traktor LE goes, they’ve got the best version out there.
However, pro users and serious controllerist hobbyists will definitely want to invest in Traktor Pro 2, if not only to use the sample deck mapping and full-strength effects.
Traktor compared to other software
Of course, Pioneer has a Serato ITCH controller (the DDJ-S1) and also is about to release an as-yet-unnamed Virtual DJ-compatible device, so you can now buy controllers from this company for all three main software brands. So if you’re a new user with no experience of the software, you may ask: Which is best?
Of course there’s no quick answer, but if you want serious controllerism with full-strength effects and insane (if difficult) mappability, Traktor wins; if you want elegance, ease of use and the tightest hardware integration there is, Serato ITCH is your man; and if you want a mixture of ease of use, controller transparency (it works with just about anything) and a kind of down-to-earth hackable charm, Virtual DJ may be for you. This is the only one of the three that works with video, by the way.
(I’m just mentioning all this stuff for people who may be migrating to controllers from CDJs or vinyl and want to know the main options.)
OK, let’s look at the unit itself. The first thing you’re going to want to do is put a track on, and it works well in this respect – you just use the big browse knob top middle to navigate Traktor’s library (pushing the button in to click it opens/closes library view) and hit one of the load buttons to bring the track onto a deck.
Headphone cueing is exactly as you’d expect, with cue buttons for each of the four channels, and a cue/master headphone mix knob alongside a headphones volume control. There are also, usefully, 1/8″ and 1/4″ headphone sockets on the front of the unit so you can plug whatever phones in you have – useful if you’ve lost the adaptor or left it in your drawer at home, as I’ve done more than once.
You can activate more than one cue, as it’s not an either/or cueing system – each cue is an independent toggle. On decent headphones, cueing volume is very loud indeed.
The mixer is an area where the extra size of the unit shines. It has four full channels with everything well spaced out. Starting at the bottom, the crossfader (non-replaceable) is in a sea of empty space which scratch DJs will appreciate (although to lack of hardware crossfader curve adjustment isn’t). It is also perfectly loose for cutting.
The channel faders have channel fader start buttons, which basically when activated allow you to autostart that channel by just opening its fader. This is beloved of mobile DJs but could also allow you to trigger pseudo-sample decks on decks C and D when the jogs and cues are switched onto decks A and B, simply by throwing their faders open. Good for idents, vocal drops and so on. I like them – although the buttons are a bit stiff to activate.
The decks are arranged in C-A-B-D order, which I like as it’s pretty intuitive – if you’re only DJing with two decks, then the two internal faders function as your main faders, and I’d wager that all but the most diehard four-deck demons still use A and B more than C and D.
Traktor has a (to me) rather complex system of master tempo to keep stuff in sync, and so each channel has master and sync buttons in order to let you choose it as the master or to pull it into sync with the other channels, and also there are FX activation buttons for each channel that allow you to choose either/both of the two available effects sections to be activated on that particular line. Effects are pre-fader, by the way, so no long echoes fading into the distance as you cut out of a track.
The EQs don’t quite kill and as there are no separate kills, it’s not possible to completely remove the bass, say, from your mix as you could with 100% kill pots or separate kill buttons. This is just a mapping thing, but it irks me as I don’t see why you wouldn’t set the mapping up this way. However, having said that, they do cover a wide range of boost/kill.
The gains, master volume (and aforementioned headphone pots) are all smaller than the EQs, which is a nice bit of design, especially when you have a section containing 20 such controls – keeps everything neat and functional.
I call them decks because Pioneer has the closest to CDJs in feel of those on any controller available – not surprising as these are basically CDJ350 jogs. They’re big, clunky, microswitched on top to differentiate scratching/scrubbing from nudging, and very – well, very Pioneer. You know what they’re going to look and feel like the minute you set your eyes on them.
I say they’re clunky, but that’s only because they have “give” in them – they still offer precise and accurate control. In fact, they are the only Traktor jogs I’ve ever seen apart from Native Instruments’ own that are actually properly mapped to the software, ie when they’re spinning, the MP3 is moving, and when they’re not, it’s not. I don’t know if Pioneer had the clout to twist NI’s arm on this in order to get this right for once, but get it right they have, and it’s welcome.
This proper, progressive control coupled with the weight of them – which means they carry on spinning after your hand leaves them – means they give the most satisfying jogwheel performance I’ve ever seen for Traktor – better than the S4, because the S4’s jogs – while technically tightly mapped – don’t feel like either CDJs or vinyl, whereas these feel closer to vinyl and, of course, exactly like CDJs.
The long-throw pitch controls (with the tempo range set to lowest and a bit of care) give you control down to 1/100th of a BPM, so no complaint there for manual beatmatchers such as myself. Tempo range is easily enough adjustable with a switch above the fader (as is keylock on/off).
The touchstrips let you move quickly through a track, like dropping a needle. They work well, but multitouch would have been nice – the Stanton SCS3 system uses this to good effect, as does the Novation Twitch. Nonetheless, they’re good at what they do and welcome. If you find yourself accidentally touching them and would rather they were turned off, you can do that by touching the “function” button to their right.
Effects and looping
The Pioneer standards – manual loop in/out and adjust – are here, and work as expected: you hit “in” to get a loop started by defining a start point, “out” to mark the loop point, and then by holding either button and moving the jogwheel you can fine-tune the loop.
There is an autoloop knob for fast, temporary looping that allows you to choose beat-matched length and activate/deactivate by pushing-to-click, but there is also the ability to store eight loops per track with full loop move functionality, and it’s all easy to control with a line of six push buttons, sympathetically mapped to the corresponding Traktor functions.
The effects, while limited by software as discussed above, are again simplicity itself to use, because the area is laid out exactly the same as on the software, so they’re completely intuitive. As mentioned in the mixer section, they can be switched to any or all channels in the mixer area.
Finally, here, each deck has a switchable filter control, with high pass and low pass on the same knob as has become common, turning to the left activating the low-pass filter and clockwise activating high-pass. The filter isn’t subtle so fine adjustments are the order of the day, but it does sound good and by switching between decks using the A/C or B/D buttons (top left and top right respectively, and conveniently right by the filter knobs), you can control independent filters across both decks.
Using four decks
Of course, this is a true four-channel unit so you don’t have to worry about cramming four-deck use into a small two-channel mixing section.
However, it still only has two physical decks (of course), so there’s soft takeover on the relevant controls (pitch sliders, filters), meaning when you switch back to a deck, you move the control to where it was when you left off to regain control of its parameter. This makes sense and works well, but it does involve you looking at the screen to check where you left the setting.
Inputs and outputs
Round the back are RCA and balanced 1/4″ TRS outputs, but there’s no booth output so if you DJ with this in larger bars or clubs you’ll be going through their mixer.
Sound quality is excellent but I haven’t tested this on a Funktion 1 or anything like that! As far as I could tell cranking it up in our office and listening on good headphones, it is crisp, clean and loud enough. No worries for the intended audience then, and I’d wager it’ll sound good in 99% of venues too.
Inputs are restricted to a microphone (on the front) and an Aux-in (RCAs, round the back). There’s a switch at the front to choose between the two of them, where you’ll also find a volume control for this one Aux source. One major mess-up is that if you pull the laptop out, the Aux input fails – surely the main purpose of this is as a tits-up backup source? Taken with the lack of booth, this is a good indication that the unit is not meant for club or pro use, rather for serious hobbyist/bedroom/second system purposes.
The main comparison with this unit is going to be with the Traktor Kontrol S4. That unit comes with the full version of Traktor, has native control of the sample decks, and even with the recent Pioneer price reduction on this unit, the S4 is still cheaper. So for serious controllerists, the Kontrol S4 wins.
However, say you’re a vinyl or CD DJ moving to digital. Then your choice becomes harder because this unit feels hands-down more like the DJing you’re used to. Say you’re used to using Pioneer gear in clubs and want something digital to use concurrently. Again, this is your controller for the same reason – it doesn’t deviate in any way more than necessary from what you’ve been brought up on.
Now, say you’re a home DJ who has serious aspirations to DJ in the clubs. Wouldn’t it make sense to learn on equipment that feels and looks like that which you’re going to find in clubs? In other words, if you want to learn to DJ on CDJs ultimately and see digital as a stop-gap (or at least, one of more than one type of system you’re going to need to learn), there’s a good argument for learning on a kit like this.
However, this is ultimately firmly meant for home or hobby/party/bar DJ use. The lack of booth and emergency thru give that way, but also the size, because the fact is you need a whole tabletop to set this up on. While some controllers can perch on CDJs or decks, or be squashed into an existing system (witness the explosion of Traktor Kontrol X1 use in clubs by digital DJs, who manage to fit them into the tightest DJ boxes thanks to their size), this is not going to win you many friends in the average cramped DJ booth.
It’s well-enough made, if not exactly luxurious (we prefer the build quality of the Numark NS6 over this, for instance), it feels “right” to DJ on due to that jumbo size, and it undeniably looks the part. It has the best Traktor jogs of all, and it feels enough like Pioneer equipment (albeit entry level stuff) to have an effortless club lineage.
If it came with full-strength Traktor and had VUs,a booth output and emergency through, then despite its size, we could see it in use in at least a selection of pro venues as a primary unit or as an acceptable guest unit, but as it is, this more is a great hobbyist/bedroom controller.
At a push, you could take it to an accommodating club to play the odd set on, but you wouldn’t want to make a habit of it. But as we point out above, if you can DJ well on one of these, it’s not such a leap to using Pioneer CDJs, either with backup CDs or with timecode CDs and a DVS sound card/your laptop, for club gigs – in other words, turning up and using what they’ve got.
So overall, a good controller for what it is, a predictable first entry into the Traktor arena from Pioneer, and now it’s better valued because of its recent price drop.
It will be interesting to see what Pioneer does next, though – it has digital-enabled CDJs in DJ booths already (the CDJ2000s), it has its own library software for DJs who want to turn up with USB sticks and play using such equipment (rekordbox) that could be developed into a full digital DJ system, and if it comes up with a way of converging its digital controllers and club installation equipment with its own software, the company could yet become a dominant player in the world of digital – something it isn’t at present.
Is this the controller for you? Do you have one? Do you think it’s got the edge on the Numark NS6 or the Traktor Kontrol S4? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!