Compared to some similarly priced but distinctly lightweight controllers, American Audio’s Versadeck packs in a lot for your US$499: It’s a two-channel standalone mixer (with inputs for record decks or CDs/lines plus two microphones); it’s a USB playback device; it’s a Midi controller for DJ software like Virtual DJ (LE is supplied) or Traktor; and it’s a DSP (packing hardware looping, effects and keylock).
It’s also well-built in metal, with durable controls, a proper “kettle”-style power lead, and a pleasing sloping, ergonomic design. In short, for the more technical mobile DJ, it appears to be pretty much a dream controller. As always, though, the proof is in the performance. Let’s take a look…
First impressions and setting up
If the unit looks oddly familiar to you, that’s because a very similar unit indeed is sold by Citronic (the MP-X10) although apparently that one comes without software, and also in various territories the same controller comes under other brand names too. Just to let you know…
The unit is medium-sized, chunky, black, and heavier than most equivalent-sized controllers (apart from maybe the Denon models). It feels built to last, and at first glance has a whole slew of professional features – two microphones (including XLR-in for one of them), long-throw pitch controls, a curve-adjustable crossfader (replaceable), rubberised knobs and buttons, and clear LED displays.
To set up, there’s driver software to be installed, plus database software for managing USB/external hard drives (more later), and also Virtual DJ LE, which is a “standard” (ie non-skinned) version of that software. Once it’s all installed and plugged in, it’s a case of hitting the big power button on the back, attaching the USB to the computer if you want to use software as well as USB / external sources, and turning everything up.
USB drive mode
Like a typical impatient reviewer, I simply dragged a load of tunes onto a USB stick and plugged it in, in order to get some music coming out of the speakers ASAP. It took seconds; the music loaded and was playing almost immediately, and all the functions: looping (manual, of course, as there’s no waveform analysis to allow you to have beatmatched looping), FX, cues, scratching (I tried it immediately; it sounded OK if a bit “digital”), keylock (good) worked as advertised.
The hardware effects sound good for what they are. While they’ll never compete with software effects in, say, Traktor, you at least get two adjustable parameters per effect and overall these were better than I thought they might be. There’s echo, flanger, filter and “skid” (basically the “turning off the turntable” effect).
One thing that became immediately apparent is that to get the best from your USBs, you have to use the rather primitive database software supplied with the unit for PC or Mac. That builds a database from the ID3 information for your music, allowing the Versadeck to give you search by title, artist etc. Otherwise, you’re just scrolling through your tunes to find what you want to play next.
Even with database analysis, there’s no keyboard search, which is a big omission – mobile guys, who the unit is clearly aimed at, typically have a lot of tunes; however well organised they are on USB or external hard drive, it’s easiest to search for them using a normal computer keyboard rather than the onboard search knobs.
The jogwheels let you work in CDJ mode (ie as nudges and with frame search), in vinyl mode (for scratching) and in autocue mode, which lets you easily scratch and return to a particular cue point.
One anomaly I found was that the nudging (at least, in USB mode) is “progressive” – if you slowly move the wheel clockwise to nudge the track, the nudge BPM gets faster and faster, so you have to keep stopping and starting your nudge to do what you’d usually expect to happen with a continual slow movement. It’s something you’d have to get used to if you’re more accustomed to the usual behaviour of such controls.
It’s worth noting that the unit can only play MP3s and WAVs, so if you’ve use any other format – for instance, if you buy your music via iTunes – you’re not going to be able to play your files at all on this.
With external devices (you switch between sources with a little switch at the top of each channel, by the way, and you can mix and match your sources), the mixer works exactly as you’d expect it to. There’s a master meter selector allowing you to switch the twin VUs between master output and concurrent PFL levels in order to adjust gain correctly.
This is probably a good place to mention the headphones monitoring section, which instead of a cue/mix and an overall volume, has a mini-crossfader flipping from source A to source B and an overall volume. This I could cope with, but there’s a noticeable hiss on all monitoring which I found it harder to live with. It’s not a deal-breaker, but it would be better if it wasn’t there.
While we’re talking about the mixer, it’s good to see proper balance and unbalanced outputs, and a booth output – pretty essential stuff for the pro mobile DJ, and wisely included here.
The EQs have push-to-kill which is a nice inclusion and all too rare nowadays; however, their usefulness was tempered somewhat by the fact that there seemed to be a momentary pause upon activation before they kicked in. Kill is an intensely timing-dependent function when use creatively (for dropping percussive elements in and out, or reinterpreting basslines, for instance) and having a delay on its operation means you may as well just kill frequencies using the EQ knobs.
Midi controller mode
Next, I experimented with using this with Virtual DJ LE, as a Midi controller. It only controls the decks and effects etc in Virtual DJ – that is to say, the mixing and EQs are done in the Versadeck hardware. This is unusual but it makes sense on a controller that can also mix a variety of other sources. You have to set your computer to use the Versadeck sound card in order for your Virtual DJ sound to come through the unit and not out of your computer’s speakers.
When in computer mode, the controls for the onboard looping, effects and so on actually simply control the software’s equivalent functions, which with Virtual DJ LE means limited functionality (no filters, for instance).
Of course, you can upgrade to Virtual DJ Pro which will give you filters and other goodies, as as a pro DJ you’ll want to do this.
Two microphone inputs is a wise inclusion meaning that the unit will appeal to wedding DJs who need to have a guest microphone as well as their own mic.
There is an XLR/TRS input for the microphone that plugs in at the rear and a TRS for the front-inputting mic, and there are independent mic levels, although they share EQ (one solitary tone control). I would have liked to have seen reverb as one of the effects because I think it’s always good to have reverb for vocal mics if needed.
However to be fair this is a rare thing to find on this type of unit nowadays. There is a proper talkover / ducking toggle, talkover being the third setting on the mic on / off switch.
Mixing with it
The jogs are good, and are typical dual-touch with the top part used for scratching in the relevant mode and the edges used for nudging. They are fine, quality-wise, but I thought the pitch controls could be better.
While on the face of it nice and long, they don’t have the required fine control necessary for long beatmixes, probably because they’re 10-bit rather than 14-bit. You can get away with it, but for a control of that size, it would have been good to see the technical aspect matching up to give true precision pitch setting.
This unit is squarely aimed at jobbing mobile DJs. Unlike many of the flimsy, lightweight DJ controller out there aimed at hobby controllerists and bedroom DJs, this thing is built to last. It has a heavy duty power hardware, a real metal chassis, big underside carrying handles and good quality controls, and I have no doubt that it will prove as reliable as it feels.
Cramming in Midi controller, standalone mixer, hardware effects and USB playback is a tall order on one unit, and while such a combination is appealing to mobile DJs, whether or not it ending up making life easier for such jocks all depends on the execution. I think in this respect the Versadeck pulls it off – but only just.
First, the downsides. Nudging is plain weird in USB mode, which combined with so-so pitch controls makes “proper” mixing passable but hardly a joy. Other USB limitations: Only allowing MP3 and WAV use is definitely a disappointment, and needing to run a database application to prepare your USB drives for search is a pain, as is no keyboard search option.
Finally, the weird delay on the kills and the hissy headphones output will take some coming to terms with.
But now the good points. Let’s remember the Versadeck lets you DJ with external sources, computer sources and tunes on USB, SD card (via an adaptor), external hard drives and so on, all from one unit. You don’t need to take your computer if you don’t want to a gig. You have decent inputs and outputs, including two microphones. It’s built to last. It has proper pro booth monitoring.
(There are also other mobile DJ-friendly feature I haven’t mentioned, like fader start and “relay”, or autoplay, for those long wedding breakfasts…).
If you’re a jobbing DJ who plays all kinds of gigs and wants this kind of flexibility, once you’ve bought proper DJ software and worked on your mapping, adjusted the unit to suit your style (there’s a whole menu of fine tweaks available through clicking and holding the “folder” knob), and taken the time to get used to its anomalies, it could work just fine at the centre of your mobile set-up.
What’s more, in the real world, most mobile guys are not performing the kind of highly technical beatmatching tricks that buyer of things like the Kontrol S2 (a competitor in this price range) might be focusing on. No, to them what’s more important is reliability and flexibility. And despite its shortcomings, these are things this unit offers in spades.
If you’re going to predominantly be DJing only with software, or only with USB, or only with CDs/vinyl, you may want to look at other more specialised solutions which don’t have some of the shortcoming of the Versadeck. But if you know that your gigs involve the need to use some combination of the above, the Versadeck should definitely be on your radar.
You’ll probably want to upgrade from the supplied software, tweak the mappings, learn the unit’s idiosyncrasies, and organise your music collection in a way that suits its database software (including limiting the formats you collect music in), but having done this, there’s no reason why the Versadeck couldn’t then successfully be a flexible, reliable centrepiece for your DJing set-up.
Have you got one of these? Do you like the idea of a Midi controller that can also use USB an external sources, or do you think controllers should do one thing well instead of trying to do everything in one box? Let us know your thoughts in the comments!