Review: Numark N4 DJ Controller & Mixer
Numark’s N4 is following in well-trodden footsteps. The company’s Mixtrack and Mixtrack Pro models proved to be the biggest budget controllers of last year, and continue to be a bestsellers. Unashamedly plastic-built, they nonetheless were great fun to use, with excellent jogwheels and just the right basic features to keep the vast majority of beginner DJs happy. Many a pro bit their tongue and admitted they was fine for “real” gigging too.
Now with the Numark N4, the company has attempted to do the same for the mid-range controller market – but unlike the Mixtrack, this one actually does have serious public performance potential.
Packing in a large number of features, this controller is flexible, even nicer to use than the Mixtrack Pro, retains the excellent jogwheels, and comes with two choices of software plus stated compatibility with Traktor Pro 2 to boot! What’s more it functions as a standalone mixer, and can even work with timecode…
First impressions and setting up
In the box is the unit itself, a pair of CDs (one for Serato DJ Intro and one for VirtualDJ LE software), printed quickstart and guarantee booklets, a USB cable, an overlay for Serato DJ Intro, and the power supply. The Mixtrack got away with its plastic construction because it wasn’t a massive controller, and I was interested to see if thethe N4 would be more of the same only bigger, and if the plastic casing would therefore be a hindrance.
It turns out that Numark has upped the ante on the construction quality. I’d say the N4 sits somewhere between the Mixtrack and the company’s pro NS6 controller. It has a high gloss top surface (similar in appearance to the Vestax VCI-300) and while its casing is still rather cheap-feeling moulded silver-coloured plastic (complete with black Numark motifs on all four edges), the overall impression is of an adequately constructed unit.
It’s not particularly heavy, but nonetheless it has two indented carrying handles underneath each side, which make it easy to move around.
The control surface
This is quite a large controller, which means everything is nicely spaced out. The jogwheels are similar to those on Numark’s other controllers, and while they feel cheap on the NS6, they feel better suited to the N4. They have a touch-sensitive metal top (in dark grey) and plastic silver edges, and they are both nicely weighted and firmly attached with no horizontal give at all.
There’s a four-channel mixer section up the centre, which feels nicer than that of the Mixtrack, featuring more slimline caps on the faders, and rubberised rather than plastic knobs.
The buttons are of good quality, and backlit in four colours, to match the deck colours on the Virtual DJ LE software (a nice touch) – more on this later. The (non-replaceable) crossfader is nice and loose, and the channel faders nice and firm. There are separate load and cue buttons for each of the four decks.
Other controls are pretty standard – long-throw pitch faders promise fine control, there’s the usual cue and play/pause, legacy pitch bend, sync and BPM tap, jogwheel mode (scratch/nudge), keylock and pitch range. The two sections above each jogwheel control looping, samples and effects, with eight buttons and four infinity controls for each side, and the various output volume controls plus the library selection knob are at the top middle.
The back of the unit shows off some of the flexibility of the N4. There’s the usual power on/off, 12V DC socket (it needs to run on outlet power) and USB socket, the latter with a switch to adjust it between controller and timecode modes. There are two inputs for external devices (RCAs) which can be switched between phono (record decks) and line (for CDs, iPods etc), and two outputs for master and booth (again, RCAs). In addition, there are balanced XLR outputs for plugging straight in to a PA system.
The front of the unit has an 1/4″ TRS inputs for two microphones, each with separate gain controls, and there’s two-band EQ and on/off here too, both functions affecting both microphone inputs together.
There are toggle switches here to switch two of the mixer channels between the external inputs and software control, and there’s a crossfader curve adjuster to switch between “normal” and “scratch”. Dual 1/8″ and 1/4″ headphones sockets complete the features of this section.
Setting up depends upon which software you want to use and whether you’re using PC or Mac. If you want to use video and audio, you need to install the ASIO4ALL driver (PC only), but if not you just install the software of choice (or both, it’s fine to do that). With Virtual DJ LE, you need to go into the configuration and make a couple of changes to select the N4, but with Serato DJ Intro everything just works right out of the box. Either way, it’s a fast process.
Using with Virtual DJ LE
Out of the two software options, Virtual DJ 7 LE is the one that gives you four-deck control, as Serato DJ Intro is only two-deck software. Virtual DJ is a mature product, and is well integrated with the Numark N4. This is also a pretty powerful version of Virtual DJ LE, as it has things like filter and key change knobs in the software that you might expect to have been removed from a “free” bundled version. All four decks are colour-coded, and the coding carried across to the DJ controller, so it’s easy to see which deck you’re working from on both the screen and the N4.
It’s worth noting that although it’s possible to mess with video on the supplied software if you want to do serious video mixing you’ll ned to upgrade the software to Pro, which will give you the ability to run a full screen output from your laptop.
The EQs kill 100% with Virtual DJ, so when you turn bass, mid and treble right down, the sound completely disappears. This is good because it gives you the best control possible.
Browsing the library is done with the big browse knob to middle. By using “shift” and pressing the knob, you can open or close folders (just pressing the knob without shift switches from tree to file focus). You load a track onto a deck by pressing its respective “load” button, and this automatically switches the headphone cue to that channel – a nice touch.
Jogwheels and pitch
The jogwheels work well, with convincing scratch sounds and good progressive control (ie if you move them faster, the track moves faster). Many a controller/software combo that should know better gets this wrong, so top marks here.
The pitch faders, on the other hand, promise a lot but aren’t perfect. Being nice and long, you’d expect fine control from them, but the best you can get is 1/15th of a BPM adjustment, and it doesn’t matter whether you’re set to +/-6% or +/-50% – same thing. The best controllers manage +/- 1/100th of a BPM here. To be honest, 95% of user will never care about this, because you can always beatmatch tunes exactly using “sync”, but I’d like to have seen better performance here for manual beatmatching.
Effects, loops, samples and cues
The effects / sample / loop section is not extensive, but what there is works well. Virtual DJ has ten samples, and this unit can control four of them (trigger and volume). Virtual DJ LE comes with only rudimentary effects, but they’re easily enough controlled with two knobs and two buttons, allowing you to select the effect you want and adjust its parameters. Looping works fine – you can double or halve the loop length (loops are beatmatched), set in and out points manually, and reloop at will.
There are three cues available in software as well as the default cue, and these are accessible via shift functionality. It’s clear that Numark is not expecting this unit to be used for cue juggling a la Traktor Kontrol S4 – it’s a more traditional control surface, for, well, playing tunes rather than massively manipulating them. Unless you see yourself as the next Ritchie Hawtin, (in which case a Novation Twitch or Traktor Kontrol S4 would be more up your street), the fact that cue points aren’t front of house will probably not trouble you.
Hardware and software control
As with all software / hardware combos, there are certain features you’ll have to revert to the keyboard to control, and this isn’t necessarily a bad thing. However, it would have been nice to see the filters mapped to the control surface.
If you upgraded to Virtual DJ Pro you could easily map them yourself, for instance by mapping them to the gain controls and remapping the gains to Shift + Gain a la Traktor Kontrol S2 (and while you were at it you might want to remap the four crossfader assign buttons to hot cues), but it’s not possible with the LE software as supplied.
Using With Serato DJ Intro
Serato DJ Intro is a relatively new product that competes squarely with Virtual DJ LE and Traktor LE, as supplied with many a controller. It has its own pluses and minuses: the main minus is that it’s only two-deck, which means you have two spare channels to play with. Of course, you can still use these with external inputs, and as many a DJ doesn’t even DJ past two decks anyway it’s not always going to be an issue, but it’s a shame nonetheless.
Serato DJ Intro’s strengths, however, are many: It’s elegant, easy to use, based on Serato’s respected ITCH (and to an extent Scratch Live) products, and if nothing else it offers you a genuine choice. Kudos to Numark for including it.
The supplied template
To use Intro, you put the supplied overlay across the controls at the top of the N4. It’s a high quality metallic template, and is immediately intriguing because it says “Serato” not “Serato DJ Intro” on it, and has four decks marked. Mmmmm, something in the pipeline maybe?
Anyway, this template has the various controls of Serato DJ Intro printed on it. It fits well, and looks like it’ll stay good for many years – there’s nothing that suggests it’ll easily crease or get tatty. Also, the back of it is blank, so if you were using the Numark N4 with say Traktor Pro 2, or remapping it with any other software, you could grab a washable marker pen and write your own functions onto it.
So back to Intro. The software looks less cluttered onscreen than Virtual DJ LE, and the waveforms are massively superior. You can have them vertical (as with Serato Scratch Live), or horizontal (like Serato ITCH), and they’re colour-coded to show you more about your track than the single-colour waveforms of Virtual DJ LE.
The software is reasonably well-featured: the effects on offer are more standard than the slightly wacky effects on Virtual DJ, with echo, flanger, and crucially hardware-mapped filters among your options. While they’re by and large all hardware controllable, you do have to make your selections using the keyboard. There’s a beats function knob, that lets you adjust how the effects map to the beats.
Sample-wise, you can control the supplied four sample slots in in the software, but again you do have to use the keyboard for this, and it’s the same for the hot cues – no hardware mapping of hot cues at all. Looping on the other hand, behaves and is controlled similarly to how it is in Virtual DJ.
The manual pitch control fares no better than with Virtual DJ, suggesting it’s a hardware resolution limitation, but the scratch control I’m pleased to report is again very good – typical of Serato software, I must say.
Serato DJ Intro works a little differently to most other DJ software in that there’s minimal duplication of controls on the screen and the hardware. For instance, there are no crossfader or mixer controls onscreen. The idea is that this isn’t necessary, but what that means is that you need a hardware control surface to use it properly. Indeed, if you unplug the N4, you switch into “offline” mode, where you can prep your tracks.
It’s worth reporting here that Serato DJ Intro’s offline mode is limited. So here’s a little trick. If you download Serato ITCH (it’s free fro the Serato website, the catch being it won’t work without an ITCH-enabled controller, which the N4 isn’t) you can nonetheless use that software in its respective “offline” mode.
Now, ITCH’s offline mode is much better than Intro’s – you can add smart playlists, for instance, which are well worth playing with. The killer feature is that Intro and ITCH (and Scratch Live) all share the same music library and metadata – so you can use Serato ITCH to prep your music including rules-based playlists, and when you load up Intro and plug the N4 in, there is everything waiting for you.
Standalone mixer functionality and external sources
So you get two extra slots to plug in your record decks, CD players or just an iPod (or two) for backup. These are separate entirely from the software: thus they work even when you don’t have the unit plugged in to a laptop. Effectively, the N4 becomes a simple two-channel mixer in this instance, complete with two microphones.
To select the decks, you just hit the toggles on the front from “PC” to “INPUT 3/4”. As the signal is not routed through the software, you can’t use your software effects and the like, but you can use gain, volume and EQ – and of course, headphone monitoring and master / booth controls etc all work as you’d expect.
To use with Virtual DJ timecode, you switch a little toggle by the USB on the rear to “timecode”, and play away. We don’t have any Virtual DJ timecode here to check this, but I’ve no reason to believe it wouldn’t work exactly as advertised. (You can’t use it with Traktor or Serato timecode without additional hardware.)
There is an awful lot to like about the Numark N4. The sheer amount of stuff packed in for the price is a real indication of how far digital DJ gear has come in a really short space of time.
This is what I would call “semi-pro” gear – you can get a level of performance out of it that is going to be pretty much indistinguishable from the pro stuff, but without the true pro build quality and specs (and so without the price). Sure, the sound is only 44.1KHz /16-bit with a s/n of 89dB, but only perfectionists will notice any difference between this and the best audio interfaces – trust me, your audiences won’t. Control isn’t as fine as the best pro units, and cue juggling, effects manipulation and manual pitch are all areas where performance is less than the best that’s out there – but the overall mix of features remains strong.
Build-wise, my instinct is that the Numark N4 will be reliable as the Mixtrack and Mixtrack Pro have proved to be. Built to a budget doesn’t have to mean unreliable, as Numark has already proved. As far as how much fun using the thing is, Numark truly has it nailed: It’s an absolute blast, pregnant with possibilities for the ambitious up and coming DJ.
It’s great to have multiple microphone inputs, which with EQ are genuinely useful. Want to mess with DVS and timecode? Virtual DJ timecode is a value way of doing just that. Got existing gear? It’ll incorporate fine. Want to bypass an external mixer and plug straight into a PA system? The XLRs have you covered. Want to try Serato, Virtual DJ (and Traktor if you’ve got it – the unit has ben mapped to TP2)? Again, Numark is ahead of you.
Who it is and isn’t for
So who is the unit suitable for? If you’re an up-and-coming DJ on a budget who wants to keep all your options open, it’s currently one of the best choices out there. It’s also particularly suited to mobile DJs on a budget because of the dual microphones inputs with EQ and the output options, and analogue backup is a cinch as you can get your iPod through a spare standalone channel to keep the music paying should you have to reboot.
It’s not the best option if you’re a controllerist as it’s more made for flexibility and doesn’t drill deep enough into features such as sample manipulation and cue point juggling to be an obvious choice. If you’re a mashup artist, techno loopmeister or budding button-troubler, you’ll want to look elsewhere.
Otherwise, if this is your budget, you’re going to get an awful lot for your money with the Numark N4. As an all-round, multi-format, semi-pro DJ controller, it’s currently the best out there.
Is this the controller you’ve been waiting for? Do you think it’s good value for the price? What would you like to have seen included that isn’t?