Review & Video: Pioneer XDJ-R1 DJ System

| Read time: 9 mins
Club / Festivial DJing pioneer Pro
Last updated 6 March, 2019

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Video Review

Pioneer’s XDJ-R1 is a true all-rounder – it promises to work with USB/Flash drives, CDs (music and data, naturally) and as a software controller/audio interface for use with traditional DJ software, too. It then throws the beguiling curveball of wireless iOS control into the mix, just to bring the rather tired all-formats-in-one DJ unit paradigm to bang up to date.

Such a controller should, then, naturally appeal to DJs who feel that buying the one item would fit pretty much all of their DJ need, present and future, including giving them a feel of cutting-edge controllerism thanks to the iOS software. But how well does the XDJ-R1 fulfil this promise? That’s what we find out today.

First impressions

It’s a solidly built, pro-feeling DJ unit, bigger than most software DJ controllers and deeper than all (thanks to its built-in CD players). Although it’s plastic, it feels sturdy, and the plastic doesn’t cheapen it, probably due to the metal faceplate under the mixer section, and the silver painted trim. All the knobs, buttons and faders are high quality. The touch sensitive jogwheels are pretty standard, a bit plasticky at the edges and too stiff for my liking, but perfectly functional.

The two decks are identical in layout, meaning the pitch control for the left-hand deck is next to the mixer, not the edge of the unit (for instance). Whether you prefer this kind of layout, or that designers make adaptions to take account for the fact that the two decks and mixer aren’t separated is a personal thing, but in this case, nothing feels cramped so I’d say it all makes sense as it is.

Each deck has selectors for input (computer, USB, CD), a host of the expected transport controls (pitch, vinyl mode, track search, tempo range, master tempo), plus three buttons for hot cues/built-in sampler, four Pioneer beat-syncable FX (with tap/auto button), an autoloop push-to-engage encoder, and sync/master deck buttons.

There is a relatively small LED display above each deck (at least, relative to Pioneer’s higher-end CDJs and of course any computer/tablet display).

XDJ-R1 Front
While deeper than most DJ controllers due to those CD players, it is ‘as big as it needs to be’, and is definitely portable.

The mixer section is two-channel, and despite being small, borrows its looks and some of its features from Pioneer’s bigger, standalone mixers. There are four “Sound Color FX” which are basically effects you control rather than that are tied to the beat – we’ll look more at these later.

There are all the usual level and EQ controls, including a single EQ for the mic input, a level for the Aux input (no EQ at all here), and switches to switch either channel from either an external input or your choice of USB/CD/computer audio. Master and channel VUs and crossfader curve/thru switch are present and correct.

Round the back is a host of input and output options. You’ll find two phono/line inputs, an additional Aux input with switchable sensitivity, the mic input, plus both master out (XLR & RCA) and a booth out. There’s a big power socket, but no physical on/off switch; that’s handled by an on/standby button on the facia.

There is a bracket and fixing for a rugged supplied bracket that fixes on the back of the unit, designed for you to perch your iPhone on running the provided remotebox software; it’s rubberised to stop the device slipping off, but I don’t understand why the designers didn’t also make it suitable for iPads, on which the remotebox software (more later) also runs.

There’s nothing on the front of the unit apart from dual 1/8″ & 1/4″ headphones inputs, and the slots for the CD players.

Setting up

You’ve definitely got a bit of setting up to do here if you’re to start fulfilling the potential of the XDJ-R1, as it’s not a simple, plug-and-play toy (well, unless you only want to use audio CDs, or plug your record decks into it. I’m guessing you don’t want to just do that).

Firstly, you’ll want to check you’ve got the latest firmware installed on the unit for hassle-free operation. Early firmware was buggy, but luckily it’s easy to check and update; a control combination on the unit shows you the currently installed firmware, and if it’s lower than the latest one on Pioneer’s website you download, unzip and place the firmware on a USB, then it’s a simple task to plug the USB into the unit and get it to self-update. The whole process takes about ten minutes, max.

The next step is a huge one. While is possible to play music direct from USB, to use the XDJ-R1 as intended, you need to do more than that. You see, it buys into Pioneer’s whole rekordbox philosophy. The idea goes like this: You use the free-to-download rekordbox software to prepare your music beforehand. You can do various things, but the big ones are organising and correctly labelling your music, and analysing it so Pioneer’s equipment understands it better for mixing.

rekordbox
To use the unit at its best, you’re encouraged to analyse your music using the free rekordbox software, exporting the results to removable media for slotting into the XDJ-R1.

Then you can tweak the “beatgridding” (checking and adjusting where the beats and bars are on individual tracks) and add cue points. Export the finished rekordbox library to a USB stick (typically) or an external disk drive (mobile DJs who carry tens of thousands of tunes) and you’re ready to plug it into the XDJ-R1 and properly use the unit’s features.

Next, there’s the remotebox software. This is what adds the sizzle to the steak here, giving you a handheld box of tricks for remote operation of pretty much all aspects of the unit and giving a bit of fun back to a workflow that, in this digital age, might for some otherwise feel rather restrictive. It’s only for iOS, and you head over to the App Store to download it. You connect it via a dedicated wireless link to the XDJ-R1, no need for (or indeed choice about using) an external router.

So what other installation is needed? Well, the XDJ-R1 is supplied with Virtual DJ LE software to let you use it with a PC, so to set this you need to install audio drivers (Windows only) and the software itself, enter your software serial, and USB the two together.

In use

With CDs

If you’ve ever used any CDJs, Pioneer or otherwise, since the day they were invented, you’ll not need telling what I found out, which is that the CDJs work exactly as you’d expect – it’s what Pioneer has been known for for the last decade, after all. Compared then to something like the CDJ-350s, in that the jogwheels aren’t the same as on Pioneer’s club gear, but they do what you’d expect. However, you’re not considering this unit primarily to play CDs with, are you?

For the record, it’s happy with data CDs as well as straight audio, if you still like to keep your files backed up / prepped that way.

XDJ-R1 top down
The layout of the ‘CD’ sections will be instantly familiar to anyone who’s used Pioneer CDJs at any time since their invention.

With music in folders on USB

Next, I moved on to USB, without any rekordbox involvement at all, just a pile of tunes thrown on to a USB stick. Navigating around them on that little screen is not particularly fun, but at least you only need one USB stick for both decks.

Once you’re loaded up and going, though, things perk up a lot: The beat FX work well, the unit working out the BPM of the song on the fly after a few moments and then you can use them to full, ahem, effect (assuming it’s made a decent guess). The “Color FX” sound great, if at times unsubtle (the white noise one is kinda all or nothing), and overall I was very impressed with the sound quality here. Cues and samples work fine with standard USB files, and while it won’t remember on-the-fly cue points, samples stay in memory when you change track.

With music prepped in rekordbox on USB

But it’s when you analyse your music with rekordbox first that the XDJ-R1 really shines. rekordbox, for the uninitiated, is a little like Serato’s offline mode, a little like iTunes: It’s all about library organisation, cue points, beat analysis and beatgridding and so on, and is pretty powerful when you get under the skin of it.

Nowadays it also does key detection, and although I couldn’t find a way of displaying key on the XDJ-R1 (I may well have missed something), by using smart playlists (“Intelligent lists” in rekordbox speak) you can divide your music up by key for easy access on the XDJ-R1 that way.

Anyway, analyse your tunes, throw the lot on to a USB and plug it into the XDJ-R1, and the thing really comes to life. Now you have sync, to start with, but also better categorisation of the music on those little LED screens. However, it’s when you connect up remotebox that the full power of the rekordbox preparation becomes clear.

remotebox
Although the app isn’t visually polished, it does make the whole thing worthwhile.

remotebox lets you control over wifi pretty much all aspects of the XDJ-R1, including your rekordbox-analysed library. You have to “log on” to the XDJ-R1’s WiFi from your iDevice, and when they two are linked, everything is there for you – FX (now on an X/Y pad), mixer (they should have had sliders, not knobs on it, though), decks, and – the best of all – a library display. This is one of the big things that all-in-one units miss out on, namely easy access to your entire library, and having it wirelessly on your iPhone or iPad feels close to genius.

To be clear, the music is still on the USB, you’re just taking control of the unit and its functions with a really big (or not so big in the case of the iPhone) screen to handle it on.

For mobile guys I think a lot of this is going to be far more than convenience, because it means you can control your performance from anywhere – tweaking the volume from the stage when the bride’s dad is on the microphone, dropping samples into your performance, even just making sure the next track gets mixed in when you head to the boy’s room! It works extremely well, and although the app isn’t visually polished (it “fails gracefully” when you try and put it into landscape mode, for instance), it does make the whole thing worthwhile.

With Virtual DJ

There was no Virtual DE LE CD in the box of the test unit we were loaned so I couldn’t test its implementation of that, but I’ve tested dozens of Virtual DJ hook-ups and they are always competently mapped; there are some unofficial Traktor mappings knocking around out there too, and apparently the one for the XDJ-Aero works OK with this.

One point is that you have the option to set the mixer to work as true analogue or as a software mixer in your DJ software – a nice touch. However, as people have been asking, to clarify this won’t work with Serato DJ at all, as it’s not a Serato licensed product.

With external sources

Which finally brings me on to using it as a straight analogue mixer. Flip the input switch at the top and you can feed CDJs and record decks in around the back. I loved the fact that the Color FX still work in this mode, so no matter what your input, you can throw a bit of digital trickery into the mix, as it were. (Obviously the Beat FX, cues and loops etc. are out of bounds when mixing audio from outside.)

Remember too you’ve got an extra Aux and an EQed mic channel, both of which feed via their own volume controls straight to output.

Conclusion

So the bad parts first. It would definitely have been good if this unit could have operated with rekordbox on iOS in the same way the XDJ-Aero does, allowing you to play music from that device. Slip mode would have rocked. And I do miss waveforms. Once you’ve tasted the forbidden fruit… 😉

The supplied smartphone stand is silly: why not give a stand that can at the very least accommodate the tablet you’re more likely to use with this unit instead? It’s only a design issue after all. And those displays are stingy, especially for DJs used to colour waveforms – there was definitely somewhere that costs have been cut, and it’s not exactly a cheap unit nonetheless.

XDJ-R1 smartphone stand
This is as good as far as it goes, but why not put a lip on it (for instance) so it can safely hold an iPad – a natural choice to pair the unit with, after all?

However… Pioneer has produced a unit here that will tick a lot of boxes for a lot of people. If you’re just starting out as a DJ, maybe having used Virtual DJ on your laptop, you can step up a considerable level with this, but continue to use Virtual DJ. Then if you want to learn the “Pioneer” way (prep your music beforehand, play from a USB drive), the XDJ-Aero will let you do so. Now, you’re organising your music in rekordbox, and you’re playing without waveforms/a screen to help you (with the sync button if you need or want it). You’re definitely closer to being comfortable playing on “full size” Pioneer gear.

Likewise, if you’re coming to DJing after a break (as many people seem to do with the advent of digital), and you still have your decks, here’s a way of plugging them in and continuing to use them, while also playing the CDs you have built up a collection of in the meantime, while continuing to build your music collection to play via software or USB/rekordbox as the mood takes you.

In reverse of my first point, maybe you’re far from a beginner; maybe you’re a DJ who regularly plays out in clubs, but you want something that you can DJ on with your rekordbox-enabled collection but that’s versatile enough to let you play other formats too.

The main group of people this unit will appeal to, though, is small to medium-sized mobile DJ types. If you are looking for a compact, professional, versatile set-up that ticks most of the boxes you’re ever likely to want ticked, I can see you being happy with having the XDJ-R1 at the heart of it.

Sure, the remotebox app adds some sparkle (let’s face it, most CD plus USB all-in-one boxes are pretty pedestrian to use – seems like Pioneer has realised that). Sure, rekordbox allows you to both organise and do clever stuff with your digital files (although for me the jury’s out as to how many mobile DJs would actually bother with that.) But with its versatility, plus its EQed mic channel and XLR (read: straight to PA) outs, it’s got today’s smaller mobile DJs squarely in its sights.

 

 

Do you own one of these? Is it on your radar? What would you see this being most useful for over just a “3normal” software DJ controller? Please share your thoughts in the comments.

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