Review: Denon MC2000 Serato DJ Intro Controller
For a long time now, we’ve recommended the Numark Mixtrack Pro as the best DJ controller for beginners, as it’s cheap and it does the basics well. But the Denon DJ MC2000, which launched on Monday and which we’ve had the chance to have a thorough test of in the Digital DJ Tips workshop, looks like giving the Mixtrack Pro a real run for its money.
Supplied with Serato DJ Intro (one of the easiest pieces of DJ software to get going quickly with, and for which there is now a Serato DJ upgrade available), beautifully built in metal, and coming in at a competitive if not rock-bottom price, the Denon DJ MC2000 has, on paper, got a lot going for it. But with competition fierce at the lucrative entry-level end of the DJ controller market, does it stand out enough to be a success? Let’s unbox it and find out…
Right from grabbing hold of the box, two things stand out about the MC2000. Firstly, it is pleasingly heavy, suggesting the usual Denon quality of build. To be fair, I’ve never seen a poorly or cheaply built piece of Denon gear, DJ or otherwise. Secondly, while the box makes clear that (as with practically all Midi DJ controllers) the unit can be used with any DJ software (Denon says mappings will be available imminently for Traktor and Virtual DJ), this unit is being pushed hard as the perfect controller for DJ Intro, the entry-level DJ program from Serato.
This fact is emblazoned all over the box, and the “plug and play with Serato DJ Intro” benefit is the first listed feature. The integration goes more than skin deep: The controls on the unit’s surface are laid out to mirror the software as well. Inside the box are a CD of the software (although you can download it for free from the Serato website anyway, at any time), a PC driver (no driver necessary for Mac), the unit itself, and a USB cable to connect it to the computer.
The unit is compact, being no deeper than a 13″ MacBook, and only a few inches wider. It is soberly and smartly presented, with a black metal chassis that slops inward as it reaches the bottom, a black metal faceplate, and Denon’s usual style of knobs, buttons, faders and jogwheels, none of which feel any lower in quality that those on the company’s far more expensive gear.
The only plastic at all in evidence on its build is the thin silver trim that runs around the outside of the unit. Overall, it feels and looks fantastic.
This is a two-channel DJ controller, so down the middle we have a two-channel mixer. Each of the channels has gain hi, mid and low EQs, a line fader, and a cue button for headphones selection. The crossfader for switching between the two channels is reasonably loose and it would be possible to use the DN2000 for scratching, although it’s not a pro scratch fader by any means.
Between the two sets of EQs are the library browse controls, which let you look through your music – with the help of a stepped selector – and navigate files and folders, and well as load your chosen tune onto your chosen channel deck.
The left and right bottom halves of the unit are where you’ll find the decks, which contain identical controls. Each has a 60mm pitch fader with central indent; a rather small but smooth and assured jogwheel; cue and play/pause buttons; the ubiquitous “sync” button; a vinyl mode button for switching jogwheel scratch behaviour on and off; manual pitch bend buttons (a la CDJs); and a key lock button that also doubles up as a pitch range cycle button when used in conjunction with “shift”.
The top area, above each deck, again is duplicated left and right, and contains the cue, effects, sample and loop controls.
There are four hot cue buttons which double up as sample trigger buttons when used with “shift”; a five-button loop control section; and a three button/three knob effects control section, which also has an infinity controller to halve/multiple the beats cycle for the effects, and also to control sample volume when used with “shift”.
Round the back are the USB socket for connecting to your computer, stereo RCA master outputs, a single Aux In with its own level control knob and monitor level knob, and an 1/8″ TRS mic in, again with a level knob. The front has a solitary 1/4″ headphones socket, whose volume and cue/mix characteristics are controlled by two knobs on the far left of the top panel. The master level is far right on the top panel.
Setting up and in use
Setting up is child’s play on a Mac, nearly as easy on a PC. PC? Install drivers. Install software. Mac? Install software. Plug in. Plug some active speakers and a pair of headphones in.
Now, navigate to where you’ve got some music on your PC (or just play from iTunes like most DJs do with this kind of gear, iTunes being build right there into the software complete with playlists). Load a track, and hit play. You’re off and running.
No audio output configuration. No set-up wizard. No mappings to load. This is the closest you’re going to get to plug and play with any DJ controller on a PC, and it genuinely is plug and play on a Mac. It’s how it should be.
With Serato, you get two screens: one view when you launch the software, and another for when the unit is plugged in. The “offline” screen lets you set cue points and analyse your collection so the software gets a chance to guess the BPM ahead of time, and then when you plug your controller in, you’re ready to go.
So – on plugging the controller in, the screen remains predominantly filled by your library, but the list of tunes is now joined by two small decks and two full-width waveform windows. (By the way, if you’re looking to play from your iTunes, you need to go into the set-up menu and click the tick box to show iTunes in the file tree. I think this should be enabled by default.) On selecting a tune and loading it using the Sel. knob and Load button for the chosen deck, the waveform populates its window. Serato’s waveforms are clear and colour-coded by frequency, and they’re the best in the business in my opinion.
As well as the main waveforms, and just like Serato ITCH, you get two “helper” waveforms, much smaller and in the centre of the screen; one which shows you the peaks of both tracks running mirrored alongside each other, and the other that shows you similar peaks but stationary. The former is good for quick BPM sense checking in a mix, the latter as a guide to getting the initial BPM there or thereabouts when manually beatmatching. Both are useful, and both are unique to Serato.
Decks and cues
The jogwheels are superb. While they may prove small for some fingers, they were fine for me, and they perform excellently with the software. They have dual scratch/nudge functionality, switchable to just nudge by turning off Vinyl Mode, but they still have the vinyl behaviour when cueing in either mode, which is sensible. They are tight, tight, tight; if you’re coming to controllers for the first time from vinyl, I promise you they’ll amaze you in performance, and you’ll feel at home in seconds. Top marks. Likewise, the pitch faders, despite being quite short, are highly accurate; it’s easy to alter the tunes by 1/100 of a BPM, which is enough for any DJ.
The cue and play/pause buttons, backlit red and green respectively, are quite small too, but are big enough and are hard with a definite “click”; this means it’s easy to hit them with accuracy. Likewise the hot cue buttons, which have plenty of space around them. Cue juggling is going to be relatively easy on this, should you feel the need to try a bit of button bashing at any point.
There’s sometimes an issue with the power supply on USB-only DJ controller; both output volume/headphone volume and LED brightness can suffer as units struggle to get enough current from your computer. There’s no option to add an external power supply.
In this instance, though on our MacBook Air, the buttons are bright enough except in broad sunshine, and the volume in the V-Moda Crossfade headphones that I tested the unit with was plenty loud enough. Likewise, I found the output level from the RCAs to be equivalent to comparable controller. No issues here, and I’d imagine this has been throughly tested by Denon as there’s no option to add an external power supply.
The EQs and gain controls kill to nothing, which is great as too many DJ software/hardware combinations don’t offer this option. Here is our first shortcoming, though: there are no VU meters, either on the unit or in the software. That means the DJ’s basic workflow of loading and playing a new track in headphones, and immediately tweaking the gain so it’s just touching the red in order to be sure the track is going to be roughly the same volume as the currently playing track when mixed in, is not possible.
Now, Serato has auto gain (switchable in the control panel) which ought to negate the need for gain at all, and there’s also a limiter warning in the software (a small red light at the top of the screen) which is your signal to ramp the gains off a little. So while this isn’t a terminal omission, and on a beginner controller you can understand meters being left out for cost reasons, I’d nonetheless really like to have seen them. It’s one bit of cost-cutting too much for me.
Loops and effects
There are both manual and auto looping functions, and they’re intuitive and simple to use. The manual loop in/out points can, like in Serato’s pro controller software ITCH, be adjusted by holding the respective button and turning the jogwheel, and the waveform display freezes to help you with this. Meanwhile, the “auto” button starts an instant loop at the currently set number of beats, which can be halves or doubled using the “-” and “+” buttons.
A limitation of Serato DJ Intro is that the minimum loop length is one beat (so no beat-fraction trance DJ effects with looping are available to you), and the maximum is eight beats, or two bars (so you can’t hit “loop” on an eight-bar phrase of a tune then get creative over the top of it). This deliberate and somewhat petty restriction means auto-looping is of limited use in Serato DJ Intro.
The effect section mimics the software, in that there are a knob and on/off button per effect, plus a “beats” knob. There are three effects per deck, which can run concurrently if you wish. Each effect can be chosen using the mouse pointer via a drop down; there’s no hardware way of doing this which is a shame, especially as there isn’t a shift function assigned to the on/of effect buttons, which therefore could have been used for this.
Obviously with only one knob to control it, each effect is somewhat limited, but you get a good basic choice (hi-pass filter, lo-pass filter, flanger, phaser, echo, reverb), and the beats multiplier is a good addition: Basically, it modulates the chosen effect to the chosen fraction or multiple of the current beat, taken from the BPM. For someone coming to DJing anew, or an old school DJ coming to controller DJing from a basic DJ set-up with no effects, there’s plenty here to keep you amused – and frankly, there’s more effects here that I’ve ever used regularly anyway.
The sample player is simple, but again what there is, is well executed. You get four slots per side, and they start by default from the beginning of the file. However, if you load a file you’ve added cue points to, you get the chance to choose which cue point to start from. They use the hot cue buttons as triggers, but in this instance you press “shift” too. Holding shift and turning the “beats” knob for a channel alters the sample volume for all slots at once.
There’s no looping, momentary/play-to-end, individual volumes, EQ or effect options or anything like that here – they are just four simple sample slots per side. They’d work well for jingles, idents/drops, or alternatively ever whole musical sections lined up for sections of your performance. Usefully, samples remain in the slots just how you left them when you restart the software, so you could have pre-chosen samples ready to go at all times.
With both samples and effects, there is no button on the hardware to show/hide them on the screen. Again, there are several redundant shift buttons that could have been used to cycle view in this way, which in a controller that sells itself as tightly mapping to DJ Intro, is an opportunity missed. I suspect it’s a DJ Intro limitation not a Denon one, though.
The external inputs for adding a microphone and extra source work like this: The mic and extra input never come near to the main mixer, because they have their own volume controls and – in the case of the Aux In – its own monitor level control too (for previewing it in headphones – a really nice touch). You basically set the volume to where you want it, and anything you feed through there is mixed in by the unit to the master output too. It’d be useful for an emergency backup (should carry on working OK even if your computer crashes, as long as it remains plugged in to the mains – but don’t quote me on that!).
The Aux In would be useful for plugging in another DJ’s gear if you’re both playing somewhere without a house mixer, or for plugging in any source that you’re going to use occasionally. For a third deck, though, it’s not practical as there’s no mixer access (by the way, it’s line only – so you couldn’t plug a record deck in this way).
It’s always good to have a Mic In on a DJ controller as you never know when you’re going to need to say something (Tip: plug your headphones in to the Mic In in an emergency, they’ll double up as a reasonable mic at a push), but again, as this input doesn’t head through the mixer for EQing, effects etc, you’re really looking at using it occasionally, not – for instance – for a creative MC, singer or for mic-ing up your local bongo player to add a bit of exoticism to your sets.
Something else we always try to impress on beginner DJs is that you can learn on practically anything – it’s the music, the programming and the crowd interaction that you have to “learn” in DJing, not how to use tons of esoteric controls. That stuff can be great, sure but it comes later, much later, if at all.
So when we’re rating beginner DJ controllers, we look for the basics, done well. We look for speed and ease of use out of the box, we look at whether the gear is going to be reliable for you, and we look at how well the software and hardware work together to stop you having to worry about either as you nail the basics of DJing. Against these criteria, then, how does the MC2000 shape up?
Well, it does the basics extremely well. It is a joy to DJ on, with solid, dependable controls and intuitive, streamlined and performance-focused software. It lets you get down to the nitty gritty of DJing fast, and frankly it offers all many DJs might ever need.
It is really simple to set up, and utterly reliable once you’re up and running. There are no pages and pages of options to wade through, no mapping files to worry about, no audio configurations to concern yourself with – it just works.
Of course, this also means you are stuck with what you’re given, but then again, with two Technics turntables and a two-channel mixer you’re stuck with what you’re given. It’s about the music, not the gear. And this set-up lets you get straight to the music, fast.
And actually, should you want to experiment with mappings, different software, adding extra hardware and so on, it could happily remain at the centre of your DJing set-up, because you can use it with other software, and because it’s pro quality. (Update: As it’s now also possible to buy a Serato DJ Intro upgrade, you can do this while sticking with Serato).
Thus you need never feel the gear is letting you down as far as feeling a bit “consumery” goes, or being tied to a beginner software package (albeit a very good one) – it’s better built than some controllers costing twice or three times the price, and I am sure over time interesting mappings will emerge for it with other software, just as the have for other controllers.
The lack of VU meters is a shame (that’s the biggest hardware constraint), and the software does have a couple of silly limitations (you can’t record, the looping doesn’t go short or long enough in automode). But overall, this controller comes close to perfect for what it sets out to do. Nonetheless, an upgrade to Serato’s better software, ITCH, would be a nice option, and VU meters in the software would fix the monitoring issue. How about these things, Serato?
So does it replace the Mixtrack Pro as our top recommendation for beginners? It’s better mapped to Serato DJ Intro than the Mixtrack Pro is, and it’s also far better built, but you do pay extra for that. Both are great controllers – but if I had the extra money, I’d definitely go for the Denon.
Is there room in the market for a pro-built but basic controller like this? Is it a smart move to have easy-to-use Serato DJ Intro in the box, or would you rather have seen something else? Please share your thoughts in the comments.