When we predicted that 2011 would be the year of the 4-deck DJ controller, we didn’t also guess that a flurry of micro DJ controller would hit the market too. But at the NAMM show last month, Numark rebadged and tweaked the ION Audio iCUE3 Discover to be used with the iPad as the iDJ Live, and released the DJ2GO at the same time, DJ Tech released the Poket DJ Duo, and Gemini – best known (at least here in Europe) for their mobile DJing kit – announced the FIRSTMIX. It’s the FIRSTMIX that we take a closer look at today.
First impressions/setting up
This is a lightweight, simple DJ controller, meant strictly – as its name suggests – for those wanting a first foray into the world of digital DJing. Everything about it is stripped down and budget – the plastic moulded casing, the plastic knobs and buttons (although the buttons are backlit), the USB cable moulded into the back of the unit so it can’t be removed, the fact that it comes with MixVibes software instead of one of the better-known (and presumably more expensive to license) brands…
Everything, that is, except the jogwheels. The jogwheels are heavy rubber/plastic, not too much give in them, and because they’re weighted, they spin convincingly. They’re not as good, of course, as pro jog wheels, but they’re better than all of the jogwheels on DJ controllers of any price up until relatively recent times. Thumbs up.
Another feature that’s started to be introduced on even the cheapest DJ controllers is the file browse area, which stops you having to touch your computer to load songs. This has a standard big knob to scroll through your files, which clicks on pressing down (although I’ve no idea why I couldn’t get it to do anything useful when clicked), and deck A and B load buttons. You still have to use they keyboard to change folders, though.
Also, while we’re looking at features from modern DJ controllers that have filtered down to this end of the market, let’s note that this controller has easy access to software effects too, with an “EFX” knob and an effects select plus an effects on/off button for each deck.
So – first impressions are of a made-to-budget, quite cute little controller with usable jogwheels, and some of the functions that have made DJ controllers higher up the price range so much fun to play on in recent years. Question is, can the FIRSTMIX capture some of the magic even at this cut-down price point?
As this was a pre-production model, we didn’t get the packaging, instructions and so on, so setting it up for us involved downloading the software from the manufacturer, using a serial number to unlock its full features, importing the manufacturer’s mapping (to map the controls of the unit to MixVibes) and beginning our testing.
Presumably, the production model will come with a version of MixVibes that at least allows you to use all of the unit’s DJing functions (expect the recording to be disabled but hopefully not much else), and also clear instructions as to how to set everything up. It isn’t hard, but it might be for a beginner without clear guidance.
The usual play/pause and cue buttons are present and correct for each deck, and they’re small but good – responsive and tight in use. You can set each deck to scratch mode (so the jogwheels behave like vinyl), or not (called “CD mode” in the software). I found it pretty responsive for scratching, and the fact that the wheels are weighted means reasonably convincing spinbacks are possible.
Obviously for this to be possible, the jogwheels are touch-sensitive, but they’re not dual control like some – that is to say, you can’t use the edge for nudging and the top for scratching. It’s all or nothing.
Also, MixVibes takes “CD mode” seriously – whereas some DJ software switches to “scratch” mode when a channel is paused regardless of whether you’ve explicitly set scratch mode on (assuming you won’t want to nudge a stopped record, rather you’ll want to scrub through it), MixVibes seems to emulate some CD decks by playing you a very fast loop of a few milliseconds (or a “frame”) of the track.
It’s a bit disconcerting, but actually quite useful for setting a cue point at the second before a kick hits, for instance. However, it means you may be switching in and out of scratch mode a bit.
There’s a reverse button, that actually does physically reverse the track when held (so no good as a censor button), and the ubiquitous sync buttons too. Just as well the latter – there are no pitch adjust controls at all. No chance of learning to beatmatch properly on this, then, or of correcting a mix if MixVibes has guessed the BPM wrong. I think omitting any version at all of this control from a DJ device may be a step too far.
One unusual feature is a “preview” button. This plays the track currently selected in the library for you without actually loading it onto a deck. I really like this feature – if you’re just listening through, trying to find a record you’d like to play next, it’s sometimes nice not to have to load and cue just for a quick listen to remind you about it.
The three knobs for each channel that look for all the world like they’re going to be lo, mids and hi, are in fact lo, hi and gain. The lo and hi EQs simply adjust the lo and hi EQs on the software, the mid remaining exactly central.
If you are going to have just lo and hi, at least they should halve the audible spectrum between them, and not just pretend that big chunk of sound with no knob to control it doesn’t exist! Still, the two EQs they have given us have a fair whack of cut and boost on them, but this is a bit of a compromise, to say the least.
The third knob is gain, which in the absence of channel volume faders, acts as the main track volume too. That’s fair enough – the crossfader can be used to blend between tracks, and so a gain control is fine to set the pre-fade volume, and as there are both master VUs and individual track VUs on the software display, it is perfectly possible to set the gain correctly for each tune and then hand over to the crossfader for blending.
The effects knobs take advantage the effects that have recently been added to the MixVibes software. A select button chooses, an on/off button toggles, and a knob controls wet/dry. No parameters, and some of them are a bit scary (turn echo up full and it goes into a strange feedback loop, for instance), but they’ll certainly spice up your sets.
While there’s a hi-pass filter, there’s no lo-pass filter – don’t understand why not, they’re both equally useful, staple effects. Still, any effects at all at this price is better than nothing.
Cueing and headphones
This is a controller, not a sound interface, and so to cue in headphones you’ll need a sound card. I’m going to put my neck out here and I say don’t think people will buy this unit along with an external sound interface. Once you add the price of a decent sound interface to the price of this, you may as well look at the cheapest all-in-one controllers.
I guess Gemini knows this – that’s the only explanation I can think of for the fact that there are no PFL buttons to select which deck you want to listen to in your headphones: you have to hit “tab” on your computer keyboard for deck select. It should be pretty easy to change the mapping so the redundant click on the browse button loaded to the active deck, and the A/B load buttons selected that deck (ie became PFL buttons) – that’d what I’d do, anyway.
As the software supports the use of a mono splitter cable for DJing, and I’m pretty sure you could also probably easily use a $1 sound card to add headphone monitoring, anyone wanting to do “real” DJing on this is going to want to find some way of getting headphone monitoring up and running. (Plus, that “preview” button is a bit pointless if you can’t do the previewing in your headphones…)
There aren’t buttons for multiple cue points, which is fine – the software auto-cues on load, and you can set the single auto cue point to wherever you want, and multiple cue points really aren’t necessary for basic DJing. There’s no looping either. However, you can do both from the software directly, either using a mouse or via keyboard shortcuts.
MixVibes is nice enough DJ software. It has good dual parallel waveforms across the top of the screen, as well as fine and course individual waveforms; the time elapsed/left readouts are clear and attractive, and there’s plenty of room for the most important thing – the track library.
The iTunes integration is visually quite nice, copying the colours of iTunes and loading all your folders and playlists. however, it doesn’t handle nested playlists and insists on adding metadata about any tunes you play to its own “collection”. However, this is no worse than how Traktor does it, even though Serato and Algoriddim, for instance, have more elegant iTunes integration.
There are easily editable keyboard mappings (not sure if you’ll get these on the software than comes with the consumer product), and you can pre-prepare playlists which you can tab – a nice touch. Overall, it’s reasonable and capable, if not world-leading, software.
Compared with only a few years back, to get a DJ controller that does any of this stuff and that’s this much fun for this price is amazing. Yes, it’s cheap and plasticky, and yes there are some notable omissions to its spec – but it’s the basic reproduction of that vinyl feel that this brings to the bottom end of the market. Purists might scoff, but this is a lightweight, portable and fun to use little DJ controller that can liberate any reasonable iTunes library and turn it into an anytime-anywhere party set.
It’s not trying to be anything more than that – it is after all, as we said at the beginning, called “FIRSTMIX”. Pair this with a splitter cable (they should include one in the box and bite the bullet on that), you can find out if DJing is for you for just $80.
Do you think there’s a place in the market for cheap and cheerful controllers such as this? Or do you think a DJ controller without manual pitch controls and individual channel faders is a step too far towards simplicity? Let us know in the comments…