If you’re looking for a compact, durable and professional DJ controller that offers something different to most solutions out there, you may want to take a fresh look at today’s review item, the newly relaunched and repriced Stanton SCS.3 System.
Now tightly mapped to an unusually thoroughly skinned version of Virtual DJ, this distinctive device remains a fresh take on the control surface idea. And if you’re a Virtual DJ fan, it could just what you’re looking for – especially if you want to do lots of tricks with FX, cues, loops and EQs across four decks, or use video.
This was first launched a couple of years back to critical acclaim but not, I am guessing, an awful number of sales. One reason for that was that it turned out to be quite fiddly to get it to work properly with Traktor, which was the software it originally came with – and making any changes to the mapping was insanely hard.
The problem was that it had a complex system of Midi control, which while it offered advantages, was not really consumer friendly – and in a market that was (and still is) rapidly heading towards plug-and-play, this little Stanton control system – despite its fantastic, innovative touch-sensitive controls and great LED feedback – lost out to more user-friendly controllers.
I know people who bought it back then and have soldiered on with it, but they generally bemoan the mapping difficulties, also pointing out that it has no built-in sound card, and querying why it should need mains power to run. But nonetheless many have retained a soft spot for the hardware itself, which is perhaps why Stanton has chosen to go for a relaunch, in an attempt to make the diminutive little SCS.3 System is more attractive to today’s DJ. Time to talk a closer look…
First impressions/setting up
As you may have guessed, it’s a set of controllers, rather than an individual item. You get two SCS.3d “decks”, and an SCS3.m “mixer”. These clip together magnetically.
On the underside, there are removable panels that expose spaces within each controller. You wire the units to each other internally and tuck the USB cables out of sight in these cavities, before fixing the rubber underside “lids” in place. Then, one USB heads off to the computer, and one lead heads off to the mains. There are also two spare USBs at the back, so it can operate as a powered USB hub for extra gear, too.
As well as being really nicely made (in a mixture of metal, rubber and plastics, all high-quality materials throughout), once you plug it in it becomes apparent that Stanton has provided a lot of LED feedback across the units’ surfaces. Obviously, as a system that has mainly touch controls, this is important, and there is a plethora of LED-lit buttons, feedback strips, indicators and meters.
If you’re not familiar with this unit, the only actual physical buttons are the play, cue, sync and tap buttons across the bottom of each deck. The rest of the controls are touch-sensitive and indented into the top of the unit. They’re similar to the touchstrips on some DJ controllers but taken a stage further – even as far as having touch “jogwheels” (we’ll call them “jogpads” for the purpose of this review).
The physical transport buttons are a wise inclusion; had these been touch-sensitive as well, it would have been a step too far, in my opinion. They, too, have multi-coloured LED feedback built-in.
The units are sturdy with their full rubber bases, and nicely heavy too. As I say, they’re well built – nothing cheap about the construction at all, and overall the SCS.3 System certainly feels like pro gear, not a toy.
The special SCS.3 edition of the software is limited (hence “LE”, “limited edition”); with this version, if you want headphone cueing, you’ll have to do it in mono with a splitter cable (there was one in the box with my unit) as it won’t work with external sound cards. Furthermore, you get what you’re given as far as effects, mapping and so on go – it’s designed only really to “get you going”, and you’ll want to upgrade to the full version.
Having said that, as we’re about to find out, you can do a fair amount with what’s provided (DJing across four decks, making full use of the EQ including per-channel filters, looping and cue-juggling as well as most standard DJ functions); at the very least, you can see the work that has gone into the skin, which is substantial.
The SCS.3 System is versatile. Being mainly touch-sensitive frees its controls up to be used in various multi-tasking ways, and the first thing to note about the software is that Virtual DJ has been tightly tied to the SCS.3 System to facilitate this. The mapping actually tells you exactly what the controller is doing – it isn’t just cosmetic, it is a “mapping legend” as well.
Not only does the dead central “master” button change the mixer view between scratch view, four-deck EQ view, and video view (Virtual DJ allows four-deck video mixing, but again, an upgrade is essential to the full version to use it meaningfully), but the banks of buttons above the jogpads on the deck sections radically alter what you see in the Virtual DJ software.
So for instance, select “FX” above one of the decks, and an approximation of the jogpad appears on the screen, showing you how to use the various touchable areas to switch effects and adjust their status and parameters. It’s possible to have two of the main effects – flanger and “beatgrid” – working simultaneously with a third, all controlled with the various areas of the jogwheel and the four buttons around the jog.
Select “EQ”, and now the jogpad divides into three vertical areas to control low, mid and high (by the way, the cut-off point for the hi EQ seems very high, with the mids actually controlling most of the sound band I’d normally call “high”).
Select “Loop”, and you get jogpad control over looping from 1/4 of a beat up to 64 beats, plus manual looping. Choose “Trig” and you get properly timed control over eight hot cues, which is definitely a particular strength of this set-up.
Selecting “Deck”, meanwhile, switches off all this goodness and the screen instead displays a more traditional control view, with the key, filter, loop and basic hot cue buttons and knobs that you’d likely be familiar with from other Virtual DJ skins all displayed. “Vinyl” lets you scratch with your fingers (the scratching stops when you remove your hands, though, so no spinbacks or brakes, except using the effects built into Virtual DJ), and another mode on the “Vinyl” button lets you nudge – pretty standard stuff here.
The hardware provides loads of cool feedback. There’s a clockwise-rotating ring of LEDs around the jogpad to show a track is playing, and small green VUs in the mixer and a set of red LEDs in the middle of the jogpad show levels.
The “faders” have sets of LEDs running along them to show you where they’re “set” (as obviously there are no physical fader caps), and one advantage of this is that there’s no need for “soft takeover”-style compromises when you switch from deck to deck – the controls just show you where you left them as you return to a deck from controlling another one.
Here are another couple of advantages of having touch rather than physical controls:
One: You can easily do two finger cuts – put your finger at the starting point, touch the finishing point with the other finger; the control jumps to that point until you remove the second finger, at which point it jumps back. Good for EQ or crossfader tricks.
Two: There’s a “reset” button for the EQs (I loved this). It means you can large it up messing with the low, mid and high, and set everything back to flat instantly. Not possible with physical controls at all, but easy on the SCS3.
I also really liked the individual filters for each channel, which are available alongside the FX controllable from the decks.
Stuff missing? There is no hardware control over the ten sample channels in Virtual DJ. You can’t adjust the gains from the hardware (although in LE, autogain is enabled anyway). And you can’t browse the track library from the unit, which to me is the biggest omission. I certainly don’t want to revert to my laptop to browse and load songs unless I really have to.
To DJ on, it takes some getting used to, in the way a controller like the Twitch takes some getting used to, but once you’re up to speed, it offers nuances that stand it apart from other controllers. It’s certainly in many ways a clever mapping to Virtual DJ, that suits the control surface better than the rather convoluted previous Traktor incarnation.
This is still an idiosyncratic, quirky and very “different” DJ controller to most that are out there. With Virtual DJ replacing the so-so Traktor implementation, Stanton has managed to iron out some of the shortcomings and gave it some appeal to a wider audience.
At last, the controller now has a software implementation that brings to the fore some of its qualities while remaining reasonably easy to use (although it’s still not the easiest, due to the fact that it’s “different” from what most DJs will be used to).
There’s no such thing as the perfect controller, and this certainly isn’t perfect. I want a built-in sound card. I don’t see why it has to use mains electricity. The magnetic modular thing is still more annoying than useful in my opinion, as the units can fall apart too easily when moving them around (they’re fine in use, though); and LE software in any form feels old-fashioned in today’s climate, where the best controllers are starting to be more tightly integrated with fully featured software, right out of the box..
Indeed, if you add the price of the upgrade (let’s say they negotiate a good deal with Virtual DJ and get it for US$150; at the time of press, Stanton couldn’t confirm the upgrade price) plus a sound card in order to do headphones cueing (say, US$80) on top of the unit’s US$299 price tag, you’re into the $500 price bracket, at which point it’s more expensive than some of the obvious competition, including the Traktor Kontrol S2 and the Novation Twitch. There’s also indeed competition from Stanton’s own DJC.4 Virtual DJ controller, which we’ve yet to review but which looks promising.
While the Kontrol S2 is arguably very different to this controller due to being twice the size, The Twitch in particular is not much bigger or heavier, and is equally forward-thinking, albeit in different ways (it’s Serato ITCH, not Virtual DJ, of course, but it can still control video – albeit at the cost of a software upgrade – and it also has some touch functionality. Only two decks, though).
Nonetheless, I think Stanton did the right thing by reincarnating the SCS.3 System. The hardware is still innovative and was always its strongest card, and now that it comes with a more suitable and more tightly mapped software solution, I can see it finding a niche. For instance, I think it may appeal to DJs who want to use video, pull a few tricks, and do so with a compact unit that’s going to last well.
However, at the price point, considering the lack of sound card and pro software in the box, I can’t see it appeals to a huge number of people outside of those who find themselves smitten by the design; those who can see particular appeal in the innovative mapping; or those who are diehard Virtual DJ users (especially video jockeys).
It’s worth speculating that with the recent downward repricing of Traktor, the whole way the DJ industry prices its software may change. Maybe the high price of Virtual DJ (despite the fact that once you’ve bought it, you get all upgrades free for life) will have to change soon, in which case, the SCS.3 System will suddenly look better value than it does at present.
Have you always eyed the SCS.3 System it with curiosity, and if so, would this relaunch make you more likely to buy it? Have you already got this controller? Please share your thoughts in the comments.