Review: Serato DJ Intro Software With Numark Mixtrack Pro
Intended to get DJs going with all the essentials but stripped of many of the bells and whistles, Serato DJ Intro attempts to provide everything a beginner DJ needs to practise the essential skills, before (the company hopes) committing to buying a Serato DJ upgrade.
Seeing as it’s bundled with an increasing number of starter (and pro!) DJ controllers, it’s also nowadays likely to be many people’s first experience of DJ software. And as the Mixtrack Pro is the most popular starter controller among our readers, what better controller to review Serato Intro with?
A bit of history
Serato was first known for its Serato Scratch Live software, which by popular consent was the first digital vinyl software that really nailed it (and continues to do so). Whereas earlier digital vinyl systems worked, SSL really worked, and won fans in droves for being simple – so simple that it didn’t even have sync. This was DJing stripped right back to basics, but with digital. You could always see why old school DJs converted easily to it.
Later on the company released Serato ITCH for DJ controllers, which had a twist in that it only worked with tightly integrated, licensed hardware. This meant that, similar to the Apple philosophy, everything was a closed show; you plugged it in, and got what you were given. If you didn’t like something about it, then you couldn’t really change it – all the mappings and functions on the controllers did what Serato and the manufacturers agreed they would do, and that was that.
For some this was great, others not so, but Serato had nailed one thing that trips up many digital DJs at the first hurdle – getting the damned thing to work. Even today, the number one email we get is some variation of: “The same thing’s coming out of my speakers as my headphones. Help!”
New DJs with a dim understanding of Midi, sound cards, and even how DJing works (ie why they even need separate headphones and speakers outputs) can hardly be expected to sail through audio routing configurations, ASIO drivers and software mappings before they’ve even dropped their first MP3 on to a virtual turntable.
However, ITCH was and is expensive – it comes bundled with controllers, but the manufacturers pay for the licence per unit, passing that cost on to you. Not good for the casual user wanting to spend just a couple of hundred on something to see if DJing is for them or now. Such users were dealt DJ controllers bundled with Traktor LE and Virtual DJ LE (mainly) – cheap, chopped-down versions of the full strength, paid-for packages, that were just enough to get going.
Trouble again was that all the set-up issues referred to above were still there – and the speakers / headphones emails kept on hitting our inbox. Neither of these packages, despite best efforts, were or are easy to set up on the average budget DJ controller when you really aren’t sure what you’re doing.
Maybe realising it was missing a trick, Serato finally launched its own cut-down DJ software package, called Serato DJ Intro. (By the way, there is currently no upgrade path to ITCH, Scratch or anything else, but as we discussed yesterday in our Reloop Terminal Mix 4 review, surely it can’t be far off.)
Quite quickly, DJ Intro was is bundled with all types of controllers, but most notable practically everything in the Numark range, including far and away the most popular intro (no pun intended) controller, the Numark Mixtrack. It is that which we test Serato DJ Intro with here today.
Setting up and your first mix
You install the software (from the CD in your controller box, or from the Serato website) plug your controller in to your computer, and open the package. Plug some speakers into the back of your controller and some headphones into the front, and it is ready. Same on PC and Mac. No config, no more work. Simple eh?
What you’re faced with is a rather gloomy screen with a window across the bottom two-fifths of it (assuming you’re on a smallish laptop display like a 1280 x800), and two virtual decks at the top. You get a choice of two views: One that looks like Serato Scratch Live (with vertical waveforms) and one that looks more like ITCH, with two horizontal waveforms (they’re huge and colourful, the colours show you frequencies and are useful for predicting the kinds of sounds coming in a few seconds’ time).
I’m getting ahead of myself though, We need to get some tracks on the decks first.
By pressing the “back” button if necessary on the controller you switch to folder view, and then locate a music folder (or just open the iTunes library which is the easiest way to get going). You rotate the big “browse” controller on the Mixtrack (it’s very similar on all controllers, by the way) and pick a tune. Pressing “Load A” will put the tune on deck A, which makes the main waveform load, as well as a smaller version of the waveform in the virtual deck. The title, name, length, BPM and other information all appear.
Hitting play/pause plays the tune (the waveform starts scrolling), hitting it again pauses it, hitting “cue” when stopped somewhere sets a cue point, hitting cue when playing returns to any cue point you set like this (or to the start otherwise), and now you can alter the volume of the track using the up/down fader closest to the chosen jogwheel (making sure the crossfader is over to the side of the playing deck too). You can also use bass, mid and treble as tone controls.
By repeating this whole procedure on the other deck, you can load another tune, start it playing and finally, mix it in by moving the crossfader across, ensuring the up/down volume control is also in an “up” position. Hitting sync will, if you’re DJing with dance music, more likely than not make the songs sound passable together, at least for a short, smooth blend from one to the other.
It’s the basics, and they’re done without fuss or surprises. New DJs can pick it up fast enough, and DJs returning to the craft from vinyl or CD days will get it in no time.
Further mixing features
Here’s one area where Serato DJ Intro shines: I repeat, no set-up. It just works – plug your headphones in and they do what they’re meant to. You turn the knob marked “cue mix” to the “cue” side, turn the one marked “cue gain” up a bit (it’s the headphone volume), plug your headphones in, and hit the button marked “cue” for the deck you want to listen to, and you’re done.
Now regardless of whether the volume faders and crossfader are set to play that deck out of the speakers or not, you will be able to hear it in your headphones. Of course, most of us know that this is how DJs prepare the next tune, and get it sounding good in time with the current one before blending it in, but it trips up many beginners, especially when it doesn’t work properly! At least with this set-up, it does, and first time. There are no surprises and nothing is more complicated than it has to be.
Cue points, for the uninitiated, are where you mark a track at a point you want to return to. The Serato DJ Intro / Mixtrack Pro combination gives you three cue points in addition to the temporary one that you see described above, and these are on the three buttons above the three effects knobs near the top of each side of the controller (which may well be marked “EQ kill” rather than “CUE” depending on when your Mixtrack Pro was made and where you bought it).
To remove a cue you hold down an adjacent button and press the cue you want to delete.
Serato Intro comes with a choice of six effects, of which you can have three on each deck at any one time. By touching “DJ-FX” at the left of the screen, you open a simple FX pane, and the three knobs and the “effect” button are used to turn the first of these effects on and off, alter its parameter, and affect the “beat multiplier”. The latter control decides how fast the effect cycles as a factor of the rhythm of the tune.
The effects are standard and they sound good: You get two filters (high and low pass), flange, phaser, echo and reverb. compared to Virtual DJ LE, for instance, they are much better. However, to control effects two and three per side, you have to revert to trackpad and screen, as there are no physical controls.
Further audio manipulation
The two small faders far left and right of your mixtrack are pitch faders which alter the speed of the tune. The small “keylock” buttons determine whether or not the pitch is also affected when you slow down or speed up a track, and Serato’s algorithm for making this sound OK is pretty good, although as with all such systems, it pays to use your ears to determine if it’s starting to sound ropey when you move too far off true.
It’s possible to set the jogwheels with most DJ controller to work like CDJs (with a “nudge” function that slows down or speeds up the tune) or like vinyl (ie you grab them and the music follows the direction of your hand). Serato’s jogwheel mappings are famously tight, and that’s another big advantage of this over some free software: even on the lowly Mixtrack Pro, both the sound and feel of manipulation MP3s is utterly convincing. They’re a blast to use.
Looping is a real weak point of the Mixtrack Pro/ Serato DJ Intro combination, as it’s only “manual” – you can loop a section of your track by hitting “in” where you want the loop to start, and “out” where you want it to end. The software is capable of performing “beatmatched” loops where the loop is automatically matched to a factor of the bars and beats, but not with this particular controller.
However, you can fine tune the start and end points of the loop by holding the respective button and moving the jogwheel. Hitting reloop exits or returns you to the start of the loop depending on the state it was in when pressed.
Old school DJs will be happy beatmatching manually with it, as it’s all just-so; however the new digital DJ will be much more likely to be hitting “sync” to match his or her tunes, at least to start with.
The sync on this is “all or nothing” – it attempts to match the tempo and the beats for you – so if it gets it wrong, there’s not much you can do except take over manually.
It’s pretty good, but one of the perils of digital DJing is relying on sync for every mix, especially when you get no options (for instance, I like “tempo sync” – match the BPMs for me to save me monkeying around doing something I have done manually for 15 years, and I’ll take over from there, but that’s not possible on this).
By hitting the little “samples” tab in the software, you are given access to four simple sample slots. You don’t have to use samples; you can drag whole tracks into these slots if you want. By clicking play the sample plays, and holding alt and clicking play stops it.
There’s a master volume for all samples, and if the sample you loaded has cue points already set, you can decide which of these cue points you want it to start playing from instead of the beginning if you wish.
Music library manipulation is one of Serato’s strong points across all of its software, and DJ Intro keeps a lot of that. You can alter ID3 tags from right within the software (double click and type away) including when you’re DJing from iTunes playlists — please take note, Traktor – and you also get the ability to create and organise crates in order to plan sets.
There is lots missing from the library, though, compared to the other Serato software. Notably, there are no “smart crates”, which let you set rules and Serato then auto-sorts your music for you.
When I use Serato ITCH, I have smart crates to divide my music into keys with other clever bits to help me move between keys, for instance, and I also like to divide by BPM and genre in various ways.
However, there are a couple of ways around that: Firstly, you can use iTunes smart playlists and just play from your iTunes library (DJ Intro plays really nicely with iTunes as I mentioned), and secondly – sneakily – you can download and install Serato ITCH. As that software’s offline mode works on any computer, you can do all your smart crate cleverness in there, then use DJ Intro for your actually DJing – happily, as all Serato software shares the same libraries and crates, you’ll get “read only” access to your smart crates.
Unplug the controller and the software switches to “offline mode”, as described above for Serato ITCH. Here you get the chance to work on your library – making up crates and crucially, analysing your tunes.
Analysis is where the software works out waveform and BPM information. If you don’t analyse your tunes, the software will do so on a tune-by-tune basis, as you’re playing, but this takes longer, so it’s best to analyse them all when offline – you just drag them all to an analyse tab, with quite a long time depending on the size of your library, and you’re done.
You can set auto gain (worth doing as the Mixtrack Pro has no VU meters and no manual gain), alter latency (only touch this if you’re getting audio glitches), and a couple of other settings (microphone volume and quite nicely, crossfader curve) plus some other esoteric things in the settings – but if you’e ever been scared by flight-deck style config menus, you’ll be pleased by this. Conversely, if you like having myriad settings to tweak, you’ll be severely disappointed!
Mixing with Serato DJ Intro and the Mixtrack Pro is great fun. It strips everything back to basic and presents you with the music and a pretty failsafe way of getting from one record to another.
Its notable strengths are extreme ease of setting up, very convincing jogwheel performance, and lovely, tight and useful waveforms (we didn’t touch on a couple of the alternative beatmatching displays, but as visual aids they’re unsurpassed, and they’ve trickled down to here from ITCH which means you’re getting some higher end features for free). The weakest point (apart from the notable inability to record your set) is the lack of any auto-looping, especially as other controllers with DJ Intro do have that. Also, not having hardware control over any more than one effect per side is a shame.
That brings me on to a more general point. Whereas with Serato ITCH DJ controllers, every knob, button and fader has been meticulously thought about, with DJ Intro, Serato and its partner manufacturers have had to make some compromises, so buttons may be labelled incorrectly on controllers compared to what they actually do, or may not work at all. It’s a factor of shoehorning the software into lots of different controllers, unfortunately. While you can always refer to a feature/button legend in the appropriate quickstart guide, this does make things a little more complex than a custom hardware/software combination might offer you, at least at first.
Serato DJ Intro is limited to two decks (no problem with the Mixtrack Pro as it’s a two-deck controller), and ultimately is pretty limited compared to higher DJ software – by design. But frankly, for some DJs it could be the only software they ever need. Back “in the day” we used to DJ on two analogue decks and a mixer; here you get sample slots, decent effects, convincing jogwheel performance, tight iTunes integration – and it’s free in the box with one of the most popular beginner DJ controllers, the Mixtrack Pro.
Now all Serato has to do is announce an upgrade path for those who want more, and there’s no reason why the DJ Intro strategy won’t see Serato winning (and more importantly, keeping) a whole new generation of fans from among people who’ve traditionally got their first taste of DJing elsewhere.
Have you got a Mixtrack Pro or other controller that works with Intro? do you like or dislike about it? Are you waiting for Serato to give you an upgrade patch to something else? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.