The Vestax VCI-380, which was released today, could just offer the most fun it’s possible to have on two decks with Serato ITCH. It takes the best bits from the highly innovative Novation Twitch and adding some of the dependability and usability of Vestax’s previous Serato effort, the VCI-300.
We’ve had one for a week and so had time to scratch under the surface of this new Serato ITCH device. It turns out that not only does it combine the best parts of both of those controllers I just mentioned, but throws in an effects twist all of its own, and rounds everything off with some standalone mixer goodness. High time we took a closer look, in this, our full Vestax VCI-380 review and video.
First impressions and setting up
In a nutshell, the Vestax VCI-380 looks like an updated Vestax VCI-300, with the Novation Twitch’s performance pads and touchstrips added above the jogwheels. It is excellently constructed in metal, and quite heavy, but being around the same size as the VCI-300, it is still one of the most compact “serious” DJ controllers out there. It is built to last, and feels solid and dependable, with a satin black paint finish making the top plate smart and reasonably fingerprint-resistant.
Front and back panels
The front panel has small adjusters on it for altering the touch sensitivity of the jogwheels, and for changing the crossfader and line fader curve settings. There are 1/4″ and 1/8″ headphone sockets, with headphones level and cue/master controls; all of these are controls that, therefore, don’t have to clutter the top plate.
On the back panel are two microphone inputs (XLR and 1/4″) with individual volume controls, that route straight through the unit to the outputs; two switched line/phono inputs with preamp gain knobs; balanced XLR master outputs and unbalanced RCA booth outputs with a volume control for the latter; USB socket; ground pole; power switch / adaptor socket; and Kensington lock hole.
The top plate, which is small and busy, does not feel cramped, partly due to the size of some of the controls (the jogs are quite small, the pitch faders – while accurate to about 1/30th of a BPM – are also short throw), and the fact that so many potentially surface-crowding knobs and switches have been moved to the front and back panels.
In particular, the play/pause, cue and sync buttons have space to breathe, as do the crossfader (not loose enough for serious scratching, by the way, but swappable if you wish) and line faders.
The jogwheels, while small, feel excellent, being adjustable with a centre spindle tightener to make them as loose or tight as you wish. With the possible exception of the Reloop Terminal Mix 4, which has oversized, slick and very accomplished jogwheel performance, I’d say these are the best non-motorised jog design in the business, and sensibly they haven’t changed much from Vestax’s other controllers.
However, they do add a ring of orange LEDs to show you where the wheel is in relation to the rotation of the software equivalent; that means for scratching, you don’t have to look at the screen so much, as you can rewind the right point just by watching the jog. It’s a modern day, the digital equivalent of marking vinyl.
As usual, the jogs are capacitive, meaning the metal section can control scratching and vinyl-style manipulation while the plastic edges are for nudging (if you set them up to behave that way; you can set them to just be nudge wheels if you wish).
Moving up past the aforementioned faders, a clever combination of three buttons covers loading, headphones cue setting and jogwheel library scrolling, and a rather smart backlit stepped scroll knob lets you navigate your library, with a push to alter window focus.
A clever combination of three buttons covers loading, headphones cue setting and jogwheel library scrolling…
All the standard Serato ITCH library and view controls are there to cycle through the track windows and waveform view modes, and a sort button sorts the currently selected folder sequentially through the first five columns.
The master volume is sensibly top middle, and two small switches decide if the lines are to be used to control the software or the external inputs. Well spaced, panel-bolted EQs and gains round off this area of controls.
Effects and performance pads
Slightly angled towards the user are the two pairs of eight decently sized, velocity-sensitive performance pads, which along with the touchstrip and performance mode buttons are basically lifted straight from the Novation Twitch.
However, unlike with the Twitch, these are velocity sensitive – something we’ll explain the significance of later. These are also the controls to use when accessing VCI-380’s sampler. Again, we’ll tell you more in the next section.
How the effects work together isn’t immediately apparent when you examine the unit, but to start with let’s look at the overall picture. You get two knobs and a backlit on/off button above each line fader, that control an effect unit each, with cycle length, effect select and wet/dry (or “depth”) as well as a parameter control. But you also get a single stepped effect knob labelled “pad FX” for each side at the top of each pitch fader, with a pushdown toggle to activate and deactivate this. More later… 😉
Windows users will need to install drivers, Mac users can use it as-is. As with all Serato ITCH controllers, installation really doesn’t take any effort at all – you just install the software, plug the unit in, and open the program.
The easiest way to get going if you’re not already a Serato user and thus haven’t done any library work is simply to make sure “Show iTunes library” is ticked in the config pane, and load your first tunes up from your iTunes music folder.
General digital DJing
Like the VCI-300 before it, this controller is a joy to use for simply playing tunes. The jogs are responsive and intuitive, it’s nice to be able to adjust the curves of the faders to suit your style, and a big, bright VU meter up the middle lets you accurately set the trims pre-fader as well as monitor the master out, depending on whether or not you have a channel’s cue button pressed. I did detect a slight lag on the VUs compared to the actual music though, which possibly because of their brightness was more noticeable than it might have been.
This isn’t a review of Serato ITCH, but suffice to say that there are no balls dropped in the hardware/software implementation…
The headphones output is loud (there’s also an “overdrive” setting in the config to boost it if you need to), assisted by the fact that the controller has to be plugged in to the mains in order to work, so it’s not relying on USB power (an issue with the Twitch, both in output volume and brightness of controls).
While this isn’t a review of Serato ITCH, suffice to say that there are no balls dropped in the hardware/software implementation of basic features; accessing tunes is easy, the EQs kill all the way, the keylock sounds convincing, you get a choice of sync modes (I’m a “simple sync” man preferring to let the software do the monkey work then take over manually from there, but there’s a full sync option too, as well as beatgridding).
In short, as with all ITCH controllers, you get a thoughtful set of features for basic DJing that aim to stay out of your way unless needed and let you get on with programming and mixing your music.
Yeah yeah that’s all well and good I hear you say, but you’ve come here to find out about the juicy performance extras, haven’t you? So I’ll work up through them now, starting with the channel FX.
Each channel has a single effect, which can be chosen for ITCH’s usual palette of 12 – flanger, phaser, HPF, LPF, tremolo, repeater, reverser, braker, crusher, delay, echo and reverb. You get to alter the depth and resonance (or an equivalent parameter), and they are post fader, meaning you can have long strung-out echoes going on long after you’ve mixed out of and even removed a tune from a deck.
So there’s no daisy-chaining of effects like with Traktor, but there’s something else. Something very new. But I need to explain the pads and performance modes first in order for it to make sense…
These are pretty much exactly the same as the Novation Twitch, so head over to the Novation Twitch review for a fuller explanation. Here I’ll give you the brief story. Just bear in mind that the touchstrip works slightly differently here to the Twitch.
Hot cue does what it says on the tin – eight hot cues, assigned by pressing a pad which then lights up and drops the cue at the current point on the waveform. Hold down shift and hit the pad again to delete a hot cue. The rotating bar on the decks’ software representations changes colour to show the last cue you pressed.
Slicer divides a section of the tune of predetermined length into eight equal slices (adjusted using shift and the touchstrip from two beats to 16 bars), starting at the current playhead point, which can be triggered individually with the pads in any order.
Underlying this, the software remembers where it would have been in the track had you not started rearranging the slices with the pads. Take your hands off the pads, and it returns to where it would have been all along.
There are two slicer modes, one which is a true loop, and one which moves the sliced “domain” along every section, effectively meaning the underlying track plays like normal. Keeping your hand on a pad repeats that individual slice, and when doing so, you can progressively halve or double the amount of that slice that gets looped (“quantize”) by moving your finger along the touchstrip. The default quantize amount can be set with the touchstrip from 1/8 of a beat to 1one beat. You press the button twice to access the second mode, and the pads turn red or green to differentiate the modes.
Autoloop also has two modes, and they’re accessed in the same way. The first turns the eight pads into beatmatched loops, ranging by default 1/32nd of a beat up to four beats. However, you can divide or multiply the currently selected loop by moving your finger left or right along the touchstrip accordingly. You can alter the underlying autoloop range by holding shift and swiping the touchstrip, so if you’re a 32-bar loop merchant (I am), you can set it in a jiffy.
It’s good for adding tension and release in the build-up to breaks, or adding a bit of interest to rhythms – great for wobbly dubstep basslines, too!
The second mode lets you store eight loops on the pads per track, so it’s a bit like the loop version of hot cueing. It’s currently confusing because the pad colours don’t change so it’s not immediately clear you’re in this mode. I asked Vestax and apparently, this will be made better in a forthcoming ITCH update, so the colours will work in a similar way to the two slicer modes.
Finally, there’s loop roll, which divides the pads up into eight related lengths again, like an auto loop, but this time whatever you do with the pads, the track carries on playing underneath and cuts in again when you stop pressing things. In practice, it’s good for adding tension and release in the build-up to breaks, or adding a bit of interest to rhythms – great for wobbly dubstep basslines, too!
One thing to say about all of these functions is that the combination (in most cases, anyway) of bright, clear status lights, and pads that scream “use us!”, means that unlike with mean, hard little afterthought plastic buttons as found on some controllers, here you’re really encouraged to find stuff that works for you and run with it (just like on the Twitch, which to remind you is where these innovations come from).
So – ready to finally hear about the pad FX?
All of which brings us nicely on to the Pad FX. Here’s how it works. You hold down shift and turn the knob on your chosen deck to choose your effect. Pushing the knob turns the effect on (a red LED lights under the knob). Turning the knob adjusts the parameter.
Now, here’s the innovative part. Remember I said that the pads are touch sensitive? Now, say you’ve got a routine using the slicer – you slice up a big riff to make a new tune, for instance. Pad FX let you transform this further. Say you think it needs a bit of reverb. You choose your reverb settings, then depending upon how hard you perform on the pads, you’ll get more or less of the reverb effect. Press a pad hard or for a long time, and the FX mix shoots up to 100%. Do it softly or for a short time, and you only get a little. The FX mix parameter on the screen (assuming you have the DJ-FX panel open, although the effects will work even if you don’t) clearly shows you the percentage of the effect that’s active, too.
It works in all performance modes, so you can add any of the 12 effects to loops, rolls, slices or cue juggling routines in an expressive way – especially if you then also apply a second constant or sweeping effect using the channel FX unit too (like a filter, for instance). You can hopefully imagine how with these resources, coupled with maybe some impromptu touchstrip action as you build out of a break or reconstruct a bassline, it will be possible to radically reconstruct a track on the fly, past even what Twitch is capable of.
The limitations of this incarnation of ITCH means the sample control is pretty basic from the hardware. To start with, you have to use the mouse to even get the samples on the screen. You can sync samples, but again, this has to be done by mouse, as there are no buttons on the VCI-380 for this stuff. Basically, you can start and stop them from the pads, and that’s it.
The limitations of this incarnation of ITCH means the sample control is pretty limited from the hardware. There are six slots, that can be one-shot, momentary or on/off controlled using the first six pads (same both sides). They can be set as a whole to play through the left-hand channel or the right-hand channel, or straight to master (the most likely), and there’s an overall volume too.
You may have noted that there are eight pads and only six slots; that’s because the final two pads cycle between four banks of six samples, so actually you have access to 24 samples. As the samples are saved for next time you open ITCH, you can always have to hand 24 samples that help you to define your sound – a good point.
Here’s what I would like, though. I want to hit “loop” on a playing track, find a nice four-bar section, drag it onto a sample slot, hit “sync” and mix into it. This is a two-deck controller, and having the ability to do something like this means you could extend the end of as tune while throwing in two others over the top really intuitively. Hope this kind of thing is coming, Serato and Vestax!
Right now the lack of buttons and knobs to control the SP-6 sample player and the limited functionality of the player itself means it’s behind the competition.
Standalone mixer functionality
The two little buttons that select PC/mixer let you switch seamlessly to outside sources. (As well as the two line/phonos, remember you get two microphone inputs too, albeit minus mic EQ).
The controller will work fine with no laptop plugged in, with EQs, gain, the full mixer, and even a high-pass filter available to you on the FX depth channel knobs (a true all-in-one filter would have been preferable here, but it’s more than you normally get so I won’t complain too much). But the fun really starts when you leave ITCH plugged in.
When you switch over to “mixer”, Itch’s decks grey out, to indicate no sound, but keep playing so you can switch back and forth at your heart’s content seamlessly. Better, though, is that all your samples are still available to you, so you could have both decks on analogue and still drop samples and loops from ITCH over the top. I really liked this combination of analogue and digital, and it bodes well for…
Let’s look at the set-up of a Serato Scratch Live user. At home they’ll likely have a mixer, two decks, a Rane SL2 box, and probably an extra small Midi controller; that’s because unlike ITCH, SSL is Midi mappable for many of its functions, meaning a controller could allow you to assign loops, FX etc to hardware and not be using the mouse or keyboard for these functions.
Now, imagine instead of the small Midi controller the SSL DJ had this unit. They could map all those lovely VCI-380 pads and buttons to their SSL functions, use the VCI-380’s built-in standalone mixer as their mixer (already, they’ve saved some space by not having a separate mixer and pad/Midi controller), and of course onscreen they’d running Serato Scratch Live, not ITCH, for quite a neat and compact set-up (the only slight drawback is that no controller, this included, is native for SSL, so you’d still need your SL2 box).
But here’s where it gets good. Say such a DJ gets to a gig where he or she intends to perform using SSL. Said DJ looks at the Technics at the venue and realises it’s not possible to play on them; they’re broken or badly maintained.
All our DJ would need to do assuming they’d bought a back-up VCI-380 with them would plug the VCI-380 in and DJ using ITCH; all their library, cue points, loops and beatgrids will all still be there (as Serato Scratch Live and ITCH share the same library and database). That means the VCI-380 could be bought by a pro as an instant backup device, or alternatively could give them a choice of what gear to take depending on the type of gig, how long they’re playing, how portable their gear needs to be and so on.
Last but most definitely not least, the sound quality. This thing sings. It seems to have the same audio specs as the Vestax VCI-400 with a 24-bit, 48kHz audio interface. It’s loud and has a full sound, indistinguishable to my ears from the excellent sound of the VCI-400.
I also liked the fact that both mic inputs and both analogue inputs have their own input levels, and of course, proper balanced XLRs as a master output shows the unit means business (if you want to plug RCAs in you can just use the booth out instead).
Let’s look at this controller from the point of view of the Serato ITCH user, as it really isn’t the controller for you unless you want to use it with ITCH – it’s not for Traktor users, for instance. Even if you buy it as part of a bigger system, including say a DVS, chances are that it would be a Serato Scratch Live DVS.
If you are leaning towards becoming an ITCH user, or you already are, then you presumably already “buy in” to the Serato philosophy of working hard with manufacturers to deliver products that “just work”, leaving you to get on with, well, using them. Mappings, hacks and so on are not going to be on your radar.
So, therefore, you have to trust that the particular manufacturer of the controller you’re buying, along with Serato’s engineers, have “got it right”. You’re stuck with what you get. Happily, in this instance, I can report that Vestax and Serato have got it right. Really, really right. The Vestax VCI-380 is a nice size. (I’ve never seen the point of oversized controllers – Digital DJ Tips was oh-so-nearly called “The Backpack DJ” for a reason…) It’s well built and looks it: it’s plainly pro gear (which of course you would expect for the price).
The VCI-380 does all the simple stuff well, being thoughtfully designed, and managing to stay uncluttered despite its compact dimensions. The jogs are excellent. The mixer, though let down slightly by a less-than-perfect crossfader (for scratch DJs, at least; it’s not loose enough) is well laid out and functional.
The standalone mixer section works and has some thoughtful extras. It is also well integrated with the digital “half”, which again shows thought. The challenge here was to replace the VCI-300 (which with no onboard FX is really long in the tooth nowadays) with something as immediately easy to use but with enough modern features to ensure longevity.
By taking a lock, stock and barrel most of the standout features of the Twitch, shoehorning them into a VCI-300-sized case, adding a standalone mixer and a sprinkling of magic dust (pad FX, rotating LEDs on the jogs, plus of course a superior sound card), I think Vestax has done it.
I was disappointed by the sample deck functionality (especially as it’s a two-deck controller; intuitive, instant loops thrown from the playing track to the sample deck would actually remove any requirement at all for extra decks in my workflow), and I actually miss the fader FX from Twitch too as they’re great fun to use. But apart from that, I think the Vestax VCI-830 has got it spot on.
In short, the Vestax VCI-380 is not cheap, but if you want the ultimate two-deck Serato ITCH controller, this is it.
The most balanced, fun controller for Serato ITCH yet, or too much like Twitch to break new ground? Too expensive, or a good price for what you get? Please share your thoughts in the comments.