My, how things have moved on. Sat on our workbench is the Hercules DJ Control AIR, a DJ controller with built-in audio, touch-sensitive jogwheels, eight velocity-sensitive performance pads, integrated software that includes sampling, effects, looping and recording, onboard library management, and an “air” sensor for altering the mix using your hand through the air.
Despite being plainly 100% aimed at the consumer (or the curious, or the plain strapped for cash), the US$169 Hercules DJ Control Air has, on paper, got everything you need to DJ – and about ten times more stuff as well. Despite this little plastic unit’s price and appearance, it appears to be capable of the lot. As always, though, let’s see how it shapes up in practice…
First impressions and setting up
Despite being a small, lightweight, moulded plastic unit, it’s actually rather neat looking, being black, with a matt finish all around except for the mixer section, which is high gloss.
The performance pads feel nice, being rubberised, and the other buttons – while not exactly pleasing under the fingers – at least have definite “clicks” when pressed, and feel like they’d keep working reliably. The EQ knobs are rubberised too, and firmly jammed on (I couldn’t get them off), but are rather cramped.
The faders for channels, crossfader and pitch are again rubberised, and (necessarily on a controller of this size) rather short throw. The jogwheels are rattly and feel average to turn, being cheaper descendants of the quite nice jogwheel design Hercules uses on its modern controllers higher up the range, but they at least have reasonably authentic weighting so they spin for a bit upon release, as vinyl would.
Rubberised buttons on the front control cue/mix for the headphones (1/4″ TRS) and headphones volume (curiously, it’s two push buttons for up and down), and round the back is a Kensington lock socket and a dimmer for the beat LEDs (more on those later). The audio output is 1/8″ TRS stereo, basically perfect for plugging computer speakers in. Fair enough at this level, as that’s what most people will be using with it I’d guess.
Overall, it feels like a consumer DJ controller, which at this price point is, of course, exactly what it is.
To start with, this controller comes with software that’s until-now unheard of, called DJUCED. While it feels like it’s based distantly on Virtual DJ, it has had lots of stuff tacked on by Hercules. For a consumer controller, it’s not the easiest software by any means to get your head around – using this makes you realise how refined some of the more mature programs have become over the years.
To start with, you need to install two pieces of software: There’s a helper program that controls master volume outputs, switches the “air” part (the proximity sensor) on or off, switches between Midi resolution settings and so on; and then there’s the DJ software itself. This could have been all in one to make it considerably less confusing for the beginner to get going.
Once you’re up and running, you’ll need to read through the manual carefully – the detailed PDF is available on the Hercules website and goes through every function clearly and in order, whereas in the box there’s just a couple of colour crib sheets mapping the functions out for you to keep at hand to refer to as and when you need. While these are in many languages, the actual manuals are only in English and French at the moment.
Loading and playing songs is just as it is with most controllers, and once you’ve got a song on the deck its label appears on the onscreen jogwheel (however, it doesn’t spin like Algoriddim’s djay software which has a similar visual feature). There are hardware controls to load to a deck, sync, play/pause and cue.
Three hotcues per deck are available, and you can nudge and scratch (scratch can be turned on and off using a button). Audio-wise, scratching is not convincing and I wouldn’t recommend this controller if you want decent-sounding scratch performance.
Even with Midi resolution set high and pitch range set low, it’s impossible to adjust pitch manually more than 0.15%, so for serious manual beatmatching, again it’s short of the mark. I suspect most people using the unit will rely on the “sync” button though.
There are flashing BPM lights at the top of the mixer section, that mark the beats of the bar and allow you to line up simple dance music by beat and bar, another function that reveals what I suspect is Virtual DJ technology underneath the elusive DJUCED software label.
While the unit has many (all blue) LEDs for various features, they are hopelessly dim in anything resembling daylight – Hercules clearly expects you to use this in dark places only.
The EQs kill to nothing which is great to see, but unfortunately they are not smooth at all, seeming to be stepped in eight segments from off to full – thus if you kill everything and attempt to bring the treble (for instance) in on its own, nothing happens for a bit then it suddenly jumps in at about 1/8th on. It’s OK, but get past beginner level and you’ll want more.
So alongside things like keylock, legacy CD nudge, adjustable pitch range and some (very Virtual DJ-esque) music management features, that’s the basics, and it does all of them pretty averagely at best. In truth, it just about passes as a basic DJ controller.
However, for the price and market segment, Hercules is plainly hoping that the idiosyncratic and novel way it moves beyond being a basic DJ controller will end up endearing a sector of the buying public to it.
Most of those crazy extra features are centred around the four velocity-sensitive touchpads at the centre of each deck area. These control loops, effects and sample playback.
Loops are the easiest to explain. The first pad is the loop-in point, the second sets loop-out (this automatically snaps to the nearest beat), the third halves the loop length and the fourth doubles it. There are other functions such as loop move, but these are only available from the screen by mouse clicking.
You can record and play back four samples per deck, and the pads play these back with velocity sensitivity – the harder you hit the pad, the louder the sample plays. Again, like the EQs, these are stepped in what feels like four steps (really quiet, quiet, normal and loud), which is fine in this instance – it’s certainly better than just on/off.
What’s smart is that you can make a loop and then hit a “magic” button, which automatically splits or slices the loop into four short parts. These are then available to play by hitting the four-velocity pads. This makes for good fun when instantaneously remixing vocal snippets or percussion in tracks, and is a big feature of this controller. It’s like a consumer version of the slicer function on the Novation Twitch.
There are several effects available. They all sound average, and a filter is missing, although “autowah” comes closest to filter. Among a few more, you do get echo, flanger, reverb, chorus and something called “rotate” (which just seems to alter the volume in a cycle). No “deck effects” like brake or spinback, though.
You can map four effects per channel, and once you’ve chosen an effect, you turn it on by pressing the corresponding pad. The harder you press the pad, the most the first parameter of the effect (there are two parameters for most of the effects) is switched on. Again, it’s stepped rather than progressive.
Here’s where the “air” bit of the controller comes in: by holding your hand on the effect pad them moving your hand closer or further away from the sensor top middle of the unit, you can alter the second parameter. This allows you to intensify the effect.
It’s quite good fun but would be great if there was a filter, which as I say there isn’t; filter is the biggest “effect” by far for many DJs, and also the one it would be the most fun to progressively alter using your hand. Alas, it’s not to be.
This is a crazy – and good – thing to see on any DJ controller, never mind an entry-level one: a four-part step sequencer. A step sequencer lets you program a few bars of beats using samples – in this case, either the four samples you sliced from your current tune, four you’ve added yourself, or the four supplied (basic drums, one of which – the snare sound – is badly sampled and doesn’t kick in right away due to a bit of silence at the beginning of it).
Once you have your sounds, you click the beats you want the samples to play on, and there you have an instant drum loop. It’s a great little feature and would allow you to instantly add breakdowns and loops to tracks, remixing on the fly. Top marks for this little addition.
There are more features I haven’t gone into, but that’s the main stuff. Some other little things: I liked the fact that the software tries to offer up compatibility information in your music library to help you choose the next tune; that it auto colour codes your genres for you; and that it changes the waveform background colour to show you’re on the beat (compensating slightly for the lack of parallel waveform).
While overall this hardware/software combo far from the easiest to use, the more you scratch the surface the more you see stuff that the designers want you to have fun with.
This is, quite frankly, a crazy controller! If you’re used to using any other DJ software, you probably won’t like it. There’s too much of a learning curve and it doesn’t do most of the standard things as well as the established players. (Then again, for the price, you’re getting hardware and software – and this software isn’t disabled; it has full record capability and all those extra features we’ve spoken of.)
However, if you’re new to DJing and have an open mind, you may well really like the Air. Once you get past the unnecessarily complex set-up, it packs a lot in for your money. As well as giving you the basic controls, you get a sequencer, sampler, air control of effects, instant slicing and sampling, and velocity-sensitive pads. You’re getting, in effect, a tiny, beginner-level taste of bits and pieces of all kinds of DJing and production equipment. While there’s nothing on here that even approaches professional standards, there is a lot to at least dabble with.
Additionally, if you’re a Midi mapper looking for cheap toys, you could have some fun with those velocity pads and the air sensor (it sends out standard Midi so could be used to control anything); with more powerful software, it could really sing (I’d love to see it connected to a high-quality filter, for example). Apparently, there’s already a Traktor .tsi on the Hercules support site.
Let’s be honest though: If you’re looking for something you can DJ within situations more serious than at home or at house parties, it’s not a good choice (in all areas the quality isn’t there). If you’re looking for a controller to get you started as a pro, again not good (the software is non-standard and not refined enough; you’ll have to learn a different software package to progress soon enough).
But if you’re looking to mess around with DJing for the first time, and want something that lets you do much more than just mix records – and you want that kind of feature set for a knock-down price, hardware, software and all – then the Hercules DJ Control Air has it in spades. It delivers plenty of whacky features that should have you slicing, dicing and sampling your way to DJ competence for at least a while before you outgrow it.
As I said right at the beginning, how far we’ve come! Pro gear this definitely ain’t, but to even be able to list all that stuff in a unit that costs only US$169 shows how digital DJing has progressed in a few short years. Whether or not the average beginner would have the faintest idea what to do with any of it is another thing entirely.
Fun little beginner’s controller, or not worth the cash? Brave attempt at something different, or wide of the mark? Whether or not you’ve got this controller, what are your views on it? Love to hear your comments below.