Review: Gemini CNTRL-7 DJ Controller
Looking for a compact and lightweight DJ controller with professional inputs and outputs, the ability to add extra sources (CDs, record decks...), standalone mixer functionality, and sample control, right there on the hardware?
How much would you expect to pay? You may be surprised to see the price of the little Gemini CNTRL-7, which can do all of the above for little more than the cost of a Numark Mixtrack. Let's take a closer look...
First impressions and setting up
It's funny, but DJ controllers - especially those made by companies that have been around since before DJ controllers were invented - tend to inherit characteristics the company that makes them has always been known for. Denon controllers? Now, they'll be sleek and supremely well built, just like Denon hi-fis. Allen & Heath controllers? Well, you know you're going to get a good mixer section, as Allen & Heath are famous for their mixers. And so on.
Anyone past a certain age will remember Gemini for its disco gear - gear designed to be used by mobile DJs particularly, that was always good value if not ground-breaking stuff - and more to the point, tended to have the right plugs, sockets and settings to work out "in the field". And so we come to the Gemini CNTRL-7. True to form, this unit looks competent if not truly refined, but it packs in an array of inputs and outputs that even controllers three times its price can't boast.
Inputs and outputs
On the input side you get a microphone input with its own volume (that sports 1/4" TRS and full pro XLR inputs), plus two external inputs for record decks or lines (they're switchable), with ground poles for earthing your turntables if needed. On the output side, there are master, record and booth outputs (all RCAs) and a pair of balanced XLR outputs too for the master. Both booth and master have their own volume controls (there is of course a headphones socket too). That's a hell of a lot of flexibility built in.
The unit is solid enough although it's completely plastic apart from the excellent jogwheels, which are metal with rubber surrounds. The unit is mainly matt black, with a grey central section - workmanlike and sober in its appearance. It has nice solid feet.
The knobs are mainly rubber, except the infinity knobs which are plastic, and the buttons are all rubberised. The pitch faders feel nice, but the line faders - while longer throw than many - are noisy to move. The crossfader is better (plus the slope can be adjusted), but overall, the faders are only average.
There are quite a lot of controls crammed onto its small top plate, with three hot cues per side, looping, effects (including control of two parameters) and - uniquely I believe for a Virtual DJ - controller, control of samples.
There's a big, central tune selection knob, and there are two seven-LED VU metees up the middle of the mixer. Finally, there is quite bizarrely a cue knob that lets you fade between Cue A and Cue B, rather than a pair of cue switches; the far more usual way of implementing cueing.
Setting up involves installing Virtual DJ, and plug-and-playing the unit - no drivers required for PC or Mac. The software is the standard skin of Virtual DJ, but you're confined to a 1024 x 768 window (you can go full screen if you want, but the software will "stretch" to fit your monitor, looking weird if you're on a widescreen).
As it's LE software, you get basically no options apart from a couple of sound configuration options, but it's fine for basic two-deck DJing, and you do get the ability to record your sets, which is the most important thing that's sometimes disabled in LE software.
Transport controls and jogwheels
Loading a song onto a deck is easy with the library browse knob, and you can navigate from files to folder with the "folder out" button, loading the track with "LOAD A" or "LOAD B".
The jogs are nicely sensitive, and it's easy to cue using them. The decks have a play and a pause button underneath them, which is initially a little confusing as the play button is actually play/pause, and the pause is actually "stop", which stops the track then returns it to the beginning on pressing again. It's logical control, just the symbols used on the unit are usually used in a different way. The three transport buttons are lit red, green and blue. You can scrub fast through a track by pressing the "SEARCH" button and using the jogwheels. This works well.
Once you're playing, the jogs exhibit scratch behaviour on the metal parts, and nudge behaviour at the edges, unless "SCRATCH" is switched of, in which case they are just nudge. Completely standard behaviour, and again it works well.
Scratch performance is OK - not brilliant, but reasonably sensitive. The jogs are progressive, and well mapped on the whole; although forward spins are completely inaccurate, backspins are mapped tightly to the jogs' movements. The pitch controls are course, though, with the smallest adjustment possible being about 0.15% of a BPM, so manual beatmatching DJs won't be overly impressed with this.
However for SYNC users, there's a good little bonus - BPM tap buttons for each deck right there on the unit. If the BPM has been judged wrongly by the software, it's child's play to tap it out to enable your mix to work smoothly.
The unit has three hot cues; the first is set using the big "CUE" button or by pressing "HOT CUE 1", the other two by pressing their respective hot cue buttons. There is no way to delete a hot cue on the hardware (this is normally done using shift with the appropriate button, but there's no shift button), so you need to do that on the computer screen.
The mixer section
The mixer section has a crossfader with curve adjust, two long-throw line faders, a three-band EQ for each channel (with 100% kills - kudos for that) and a gain control for each channel. The latter is important as there's no autogain with this version of the software. You can monitor the gain setting via the big VU meters, but I found them to be unreliable as with some tracks, things were plainly peaking and distorting but the VUs were only showing -3dB. Funnily enough, with others it was OK.
Luckily it is easy to monitor VUs on Virtual DJ's screen to ensure you're not peaking, so there is still a way to get this right.
The mixer section also has two USB/LINE switches. Pressing one of these to switch to LINE immediately stops the Virtual DJ channel, and then that channel works as an analogue channel, separate from the software. Unlike some DJ controllers with this type of functionality, the mixer section works properly - you have low, mid and high, gain for each analogue channel, and the crossfader and line faders operate exactly as they should.
While you'd don't need Virtual DJ loaded to use these analogue functions, you do need the USB connected for power. There is provision for an external power supply, though, so it would be possible to use these inputs as emergency throughs, but you'd need to invest in a power supply as one doesn't come with the CNTL-7 as standard. Nonetheless, I think it's fair to say that this unit does indeed qualify as a standalone mixer.
Headphone cueing is frankly bizarre. There's a knob on the front that you turn to mix deck A and deck B, but it switches abruptly from one to the other, so you get no blending at all - it's just the same as having a switch. However, switch to analogue and it does indeed blend the two sources, so it's like a weird cross between a master/cue knob (common on DJ controllers) and traditional switched cueing.
It's especially weird when you're mixing with a digital source on one deck and an analogue source on the other, because then the digital source switches abruptly off at 12 o'clock, and the analogue source slowly fades in as you move the knob further round.
Looping is implemented in a limited way. The hardware has a "loop in" and "loop out" duo of buttons - you press "loop in" to set the start point for a loop, and "loop out" to set the end point. This is what's called "manual looping", and is fine - but digital DJ software is designed to let you loop precisely to beats and bars which is one of its great strengths, and on the Gemini, there's no way to do this.
Furthermore, the hardware does have "halve" and "double" buttons, to halve and double the selected loop length - but if your loop wasn't properly matched to beats or bars in the first place, you get a fraction or a multiple of something that wasn't ever a candidate to be doubled or halved in length. You can't even easily select a beatmatched loop from the software screen, because this version of the software closely correlates to the controls available on the hardware.
A workaround I discovered is to set an accurate start point, guess the end point, then use the loop length dropdown in the software to select an exact length of loop. Do it this way and your loop will be beatmatched - but it's long-winded.
If you think loops are going to be a big part of your mixing, you probably won't be satisfied with what's on offer here.
Effects, samples and more
Effects are severely limited by what's available in Virtual DJ LE - but what is there works well enough. You can alter two parameters of the effect selected using the two effects pots, but only really the flanger is worth doing this with - the knobs don't affect anything in many of the effects. There are no filters in this version of the software, although the backspin and brake are good for vinyl emulation.
The sampler section is more interesting though. Virtual DJ has a good sampler, where you can assign loops or one-hit samples, give them names and save them. Then, using the sampler selector knob onthe CNTRL-7, you can trigger samples (one at a time for each deck). The screen shows you the name of the selected sample, and an LED on the unit shows you which is set too, and also flashes when it is running.
While not as complex as Traktor or Serato's sample features, this is pretty useful and it's good to have control right there on the hardware. One or two things we've not covered so far: there is a keylock button (it's called "MASTER TEMPO") and a rather useful PITCH button, that slowly returns the track to +/-0% pitch - good for correcting dodgy keylocked mixes where the incoming track is far out from the original BPM and when the resampling algorithm is struggling to keep the track sounding OK.
I've already mentioned the weird sound card issue where the VU didn't seem to reflect what was going on in the sound, gain staging wise. You have to be careful not to drive or distort in any way, and force yourself to rely on the software's on-screen VU monitoring rather than that on the unit. With some care, the sound quality from the unit is acceptable, though.
There was a non-musical high-pitched noise from my speakers - low, but there - on setting up. I believe this is because I review gear right under my 27" monitor, which seems to affect some units. Turn the master volume up and it disappears - I don't mean it is drowned out by the volume, but that it actually disappears entirely, so that it's not there, even if there's no music playing. I don't regard this as a big issue, and I suspect on a laptop it wouldn't be a problem, but it suggests a possible soundcard shielding issue.
Finally, the crossfader worked in reverse on our test unit! I reinstalled and uninstalled this and other versions of Virtual DJ (we obviously review a lot of controllers on our gear, so it could have been something to do with old settings left over), but I couldn't correct this fault. I suspect it is some anomaly on my set-up, as I couldn't find mention of it in other reviews.
This unit packs in an awful lot for the money. Where else can you find pro microphone inputs, standalone mixer capabilities, and the full suite of master/booth/record out on a two-deck controller, with working software, for this kind of price? Compact, lightweight (about the same size and weight as the Novation Twitch), and business-like, it is nicely portable, and boasts great jogwheels, making basic DJing a pleasure.
However, it is designed and built to a budget, and that shows in the limited software supplied, things like average quality faders and poor pitch controls, and the lack of some obvious Midi features (I want to be able to erase cue points without reverting to the screen; I expect beat-matched looping as standard).
Most of this stuff could be corrected with the full version of Virtual DJ, which you can buy through the supplied LE version, as you could then easily remap things (I'd switch autogain on and remap the gains as filters, remap how the looping works, and change the crossfader to +/-8% in order to give finer control, for starters). Of course, as it's a Midi controller, you can map it to any software with Midi learn. Do this kind of stuff, and you'd have not only a more exciting controller due to the expanded capabilities of the software, but also a flexible set-up like nothing else at this end of the market.
However, the pro version of Virtual DJ costs US$299, and adding that on to the price of the controller takes you close to Novation Twitch and even Traktor Kontrol S2 territory - and that's when the Gemini CNTRL-7 suddenly doesn't look such great value. Of course, if you already have Virtual DJ Pro, it's a steal. But if not, you need to compare the CNTRL-7 against the other controllers I've mentioned, as well as units like the Reloop Mixage and indeed that perennial best-seller the Mixtrack Pro, and see which one best suits your needs by carefully comparing features.
If after that exercise it turns out that XLRs, record/booth outs, onboard sample control and good external input handling prove to be your must-have features, you may indeed end up choosing this little controller over one of the other options.
This unit packs in an awful lot for the money. Where else can you find pro microphone inputs, standalone mixer capabilities, and the full suite of master/booth/record out on a two-deck controller, with working software, for this kind of price? Compact, lightweight (about the same size and weight as the Novation Twitch), and business-like, it is nicely portable, and boasts great jogwheels, making basic DJing a pleasure. However, it is designed and built to a budget, and that shows in the watered down Virtual DJ 7 software supplied. If you don't own a copy of VDJ7, you need to compare the CNTRL-7 against units like the Reloop Mixage and indeed that perennial best-seller the Mixtrack Pro, and see which one best suits your needs by carefully comparing features.
- CNTRL-7 DJ Controller
- From: Gemini
- Price: $210
- Reviewed by:
Are you tempted by the cheapest standalone mixer/controller we've yet to review? Or would you miss some of the things we mentioned as absent from this set-up? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.