Back in the day, every DJ had to own a mixer – it was the essential link between their turntables and speakers/headphones. But of course in the digital age, many DJs are happy playing on DJ controllers and standalone all-in-one systems, which have the mixing duties built-in as part of their function.
However, that doesn’t mean mixers are dead – far from it! Practically every club still has a mixer at the heart of its DJ booth set-up, DJs who like to scratch and perform usually have turntables with a mixer in-between them just like everyone did in the past, and mobile DJs often prefer “separates” (a mixer and a couple of media players) for both the pro look and in case items need substituting for repair, for instance.
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Prefer to see this in action? Check out our video where I run through examples of DJ mixers, and highlight the 8 important features DJs should consider before buying.
And even as a hobby DJ, you may simply decide you want a DJ set-up that has a mixer at its heart – not least because mixers almost always offer more functionality than that offered by the mixing functions built in to all-in-one devices.
So, you want a DJ mixer. What should you be looking out for when making your choice? That’s what we’re going to cover in this article.
8 Things To Consider When Choosing A DJ Mixer
1. Club or scratch?
This is the big choice. “Club” mixers are designed to offer versatility, the ability to handle whatever configurations, set-ups, gear and DJs are thrown at them. The best have multitudes of inputs and outputs, many channels, all kinds of effects, complex sound cards – flexibility is the name of the game.
You only have to look at a “club standard” mixer like the Pioneer DJ DJM-900NXS2 to see how busy such mixers are, full of features that mean they can work in almost any situation. You can build hybrid DJ/producer set-ups around club mixers, map controls to any software, plug in multiple DJs, permanently wire in many pieces of equipment to easily switch between, and so on.
However, all of this means they are cluttered, expensive, and while they are good at everything, they don’t excel at any one thing.
Read this next: Club Mixers vs Battle Mixers – Which Is Right For You?
Scratch mixers are very different. Nearly always just sporting two physical channels, they are designed to be simple to use for their main purpose: Performance DJing. They have uncluttered faceplates in the bottom third where the crossfader is, usually big paddles to operate stripped-back effects, and while they do have (usually) enough inputs for most purposes, they’re designed primarily for DJs to plug two turntables into, to create a modern variant on the timeless vinyl scratch set-up.
They also, nowadays, nearly always feature close software tie-ins, usually with Serato (the most popular software with hip hop/scratch DJs) – so you get performance pads, direct effects control and so on. None of this tends to feature on club mixers, which – while they can work with DJ software – don’t have dedicated controls for it.
Get this choice right, and you’l be well on the way to choosing the right mixer for you.
2. Number/type of input channels
Obviously you want to make sure any mixer you buy has enough input channels for what you want to plug into it. Most will have at least the ability to plug in a minimum of two record decks, and two line-level inputs (media players etc). But how easy is it to switch between the two? And what about other inputs – aux inputs for backup sources, for instance? And what about mic inputs? (Not usually a big issue for club DJs, more so for mobile DJs.)
The important things to bear in mind are how many inputs you have, how easy it is to switch between them, and how easy it is to actually mix them – it’s all very well having six inputs, but if you only have two actual faders, switching between and mixing them will be that much more involved.
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Decide what you need, and whether the switching between them will be part of your performing, or just something you do when setting up, and then assess the features of the mixers you’re considering to make sure the number and set-up of those inputs works for you.
3. Software features
As mentioned above, scratch mixers are typically aligned with a particular software brand, and that usually means Serato – so you get pads, effects control and so on, all tied closely to that platform.
Club mixers, at least high-end ones, have full Midi, so you can somewhat easily tell the mixer that you want a control to control a particular function on your software, but they lack dedicated such controls, so it’ll always be a bit of a hack mapping software functions to club mixers – whereas with software-focused mixers, that’s all taken care of for you.
Of course, many DJs don’t want to DJ with a laptop in the DJ booth, and if that’s you, this needn’t be a concern to you – but if you do want to use a club-style mixer with DJ software, you may want to consider adding an extra controller to giver you those controls that the mixer doesn’t offer you.
4. Audio interface
This is the circuitry that allows you to plug a computer into the mixer, not in this case to use it as a controller for your software, but to be able to feed its audio signals into a computer, and to take a computer’s audio signals into the mixer.
This can be useful for DJing with software, for sure, but also to use “soft” effects (sending and returning channels to the laptop to use it as an effects unit), for recording your livestreaming performances directly from computers, for playing back music from, say, Ableton while you also DJ, and so on. For laptop DJs, having a built-in audio interface that can handle two DJs plugging their computers in at once can make DJ switchovers more smooth. And audio interfaces are also necessary for using DVS (Digital Vinyl Systems).
Of course, you may not care for any of this, in which case a mixer with no audio interface built in will be fine – but nowadays, most mid to high-end mixers assume you are going to want this kind of functionality, and have some kind of audio interface built in. Just make sure that the audio interface in the mixer you want to purchase is sufficient for your requirements (enough inputs and outputs) and that it will work OK with the software you want to use it with (usually, this means checking it works with Serato DJ, because other programs don’t have restrictions).
A send/return is a feature that lets you route an input channel back out of the mixer to somewhere else, “returning” it after you’ve processed it outside of the mixer. This kind of feature is used, usually, to add external effects to individual channels of an overall mix, meaning you’re not tied to simply sending the whole output of the mixer through an effects processor.
Read this next: What Makes A DJ Mixer Different From A Normal Mixer?
You may have seen DJs using guitar pedals, or dedicated external effects units, and this is what they’re using to do that. As touched on above, if your mixer has an audio interface built into it, it is even sometimes possible to “send” channels to a laptop for processing, for instance.
Bear in mind that this may not be important to you (not least because most mixers nowadays have great effects built in which you can use for this) – but if it is, make sure your mixer choice has it! (Most cheaper mixers don’t…)
6. Record Out
It is taken as read with a pro or semi-pro mixer that you’ll get two outputs – a master (for the main speakers) and a booth (for the speakers in the DJ booth). Each of these will have its own volume control on the mixer.
However if you want to record your sets, having a Record Out is a distinct advantage. Why? Because “Record Out” sockets on mixers bypass all master/booth volume controls. You can be turning the volume up in the club as the night wears on and the venue fills, and you can be turning your booth speakers up and down to variously mix, chat with people, and so on, and anything you have plugged into the Rec Out sockets recording the evening won’t be affected by any of that.
Of course, if you’re only using one set of of the booth and master outputs, and you want to record your set by plugging something into the mixer such as a hardware recorder or even a phone recording app, you can simply plug into the output you’re not using, be that booth or master, and leave its volume control alone. But in a club situation, where both of those outputs are used, a Rec Out is necessary for recording your sets this way.
7. Split cue
A split cue is something that used to feature on pretty much all DJ mixers, cheap or expensive, but it’s a feature that seems to have drifted out of fashion – and we’re not sure why.
It sends the “master” output into one of your headphone earcups, and any cued output into the other. This means you can use your headphones to beatmix, without the need for a monitor speaker nearby. This is super useful if the monitoring is poor or non-existent, or if you want to DJ using IEMs, for instance.
Controller DJs who used to DJ with older DJ mixers often bemoan the lack of split cue (very few DJ controllers have it), and even some expensive pro DJ mixers don’t have it, so do be careful to check it’s there when choosing a mixer if this is something you think you’ll use.
8. Ethernet hub
Modern DJ media players benefit from being networked together, and matching mixers from the same brand usually offer more integration with media players if they, too, are networked. Moreover, as cloud features begin to become the norm on DJ gear, having the gear networked not only together but also to the internet is becoming more important. For all of this, you need Ethernet cables, and somewhere, a hub for them all to hook together.
With some DJ mixers, you have to use an external hub (Pioneer DJ set-ups at the time of writing, for instance), whereas with others, there’s a hub built in to the mixer (such as the Denon DJ X1850 Prime).
It’s not a big issue to buy a $15 Ethernet switch, but if it’s built into the mixer it’s just something less to worry about, and gives you a cleaner set-up.
When buying a mixer, most people will find it pretty easy. Building a pro Pioneer set-up? You’ll get whatever Pioneer mixer is currently the norm in the DJ booth (at the time of writing, it’s the ageing DJM-900NXS2). Building a Denon DJ set-up? The equivalent Denon DJ mixer for its media players (again, at the time of writing, is the X1850).
Scratch DJ? You’ll be looking at the Pioneer DJM-S7 or S11, or maybe the smaller S5, or the Numark Scratch if on a bit more of a budget. (The Reloop Elite is a nice scratch mixer too, for the record.)
Electronic DJ/producer wanting to do live remixing and hybrid DJ/production live sets? Richie Hawtin’s all-analogue PLAYdifferently Model 1 may be something you’re looking at, or Pioneer DJ’s DJM-V10, which both offer routing capabilities and EQs beyond most “normal” mixers.
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In other words, you’ll probably already have an idea of the mixer you want, based around the kind of DJing you do, and the fact that you’re deciding on this as a much thought-about upgrade, not an impulse first purchase in the DJ world.
But nonetheless, do just take a second to run through a mental checklist of “must haves” before spending the relatively large amount on a new mixer, to make sure you’re not missing something you’ve assumed “all mixers have” – Hopefully this list can help you with that.