An impressive, well-built feature-packed controller for the brand new Rekordbox DJ software that’s an attractive option for DJs looking to get started with a view to going pro. It will also be very tempting to DJs using other platforms who can now finally harness the track preparation power of Rekordbox’s software and DJ straight from it with a plug and play controller. The DDJ-RX adds dedicated Rekordbox DJ controls.
First Impressions / Setting up
First impressions and setting up
Apart from the colour and the addition of a few new buttons to control Rekordbox DJ features that Serato doesn’t have, the DDJ-RX is very similar to the DDJ-SX, that’s to say it’s solid, well built and attractively laid out. Constructed from a chunky plastic main shell with a metal top plate, it’s heavy enough to be sturdy but still remain portable (I carried it under one arm on a 10-minute walk without any Numark NS7-style backache!).
The knobs, selectors and faders all have that reliable pro Pioneer feel, and the sturdy jogwheels actually feel more solid and better for scratching than the mechanical feel of Pioneer’s professional CDJ and XDJ players. All the selector buttons feel like they could take a real pounding without failing and the Akai-style velocity sensitive performance pads feel tactile and are just beg to be hammered and finger-drummed! The browser scroll rotary encoder and folder navigation buttons are tucked right at the top and are a little small and fiddly, but they do the job once you get used to them and are certainly not a deal-breaker.
On the rear we get output choices of balanced XLR / unbalanced RCA main outputs plus a TRS booth output. The input options are impressive, channels 1 & 2 have inputs for phono or line, useful for external sound sources like a CD Player or iPod/Phone and of course, they’re ready for the forthcoming DVS capability of Rekordbox DJ. Channel 3 has an RCA line input and a combined XLR / TRS mic input. Channel 4 has RCA input for CD and a second mic via TRS jack. The plastic protector for the back panel is a little flimsy, especially around the XLR sockets, this could easily get damaged if you’re not careful when hooking up your outputs, time will tell.
Around the front you get two very loud headphone outputs, 3/4” and 1/8” inch mini-jack options with level and cut / master mix control, selectable channel inputs via recessed switches to prevent accidental switching, PC (for control of the software) and Mic, CD, Phono or Line dependent of the channel.
Getting the software installed and the controller recognised and connected is child’s play, much like Serato in this respect, and the available manuals are clear in helping with those early head-scratching questions. The integration between controller functions and the view / layout on screen is intuitive and logical which, given this was originally a controller designed for different software, highlights the obvious look / feel similarities that Rekordbox DJ has with Serato DJ.
Loading tracks is simple, the scroll knob takes you through tracks in the playlists, or playlists in the folder dependent on where you are in the folder tree, you can go back one step in the tree by pressing “back” or by holding shift you can scroll through the “areas”, these include “playlist palettes” (a handy feature of the software where you can have your most needed playlists in a handy central screen position for quick access) and the “tag list” which is another great idea here; when scrolling through a playlist you can hit the “tag track” button just under the scroll knob and the track will be added to the tag list.
This is great when you know you’d like to play the track soon, but maybe just not yet. You can scroll through the “areas” to get to that tag list anytime. Of course if you haven’t got the screen layout on the laptop set up as such that all your main playlists, playlist palette and tag lists are all visible then this doesn’t work so well, and on small laptop screens it just isn’t practical to have all the views that the software offers showing as visible, however if you’re lucky enough to have a second monitor then another super-clever feature of the software is that you can “pop out” the browser section to another screen – awesome, but a luxury for most! Lastly in the browser functions you can use combinations of shift / buttons to sort playlists by artist, BPM, title and track number and also get a suggested list of related tracks that would be good to mix with the current tune. There’s a lot of browser functionality packed into a small area on this unit.
In the mixer section we’re in reassuringly familiar Pioneer territory – standard bass / mid / treble kills for each channel plus full kill trim / gain knobs. Each channel has a silver control knob for the built-in hardware colour FX with the FX selector buttons in the middle giving you a choice of the “noise”, “crush”, “pitch” or “filter” FX that features on a lot of Pioneer gear. With the levels for booth output, master level meters and mater level control lined down the middle, everything feels ergonomically laid out with just enough space to get to grip with EQ, filters and so on. In the middle of the channel faders sits the fader for the volume level of the sampler output and buttons to sync and cue the sampler too, more on the sampler in a bit…
At the top of each deck there’s an FX bank where you can select either three separate “beat FX” (tied to the track tempo by quantise with 17 to choose from) with one parameter controlled by each rotary knob and toggled on / off by the button, or you can set it up so each bank is hosting just one effect with deeper control over parameters like “swing” and lo / hi cut for the selected effect. The choice of FX is excellent and the functionality of this whole section works really well. Bright blue lights under each on / off button and on the channel fader FX assigns ensure you can see at a glance what FX are enabled and changing your choice of effect in each bank and adjusting parameters is easy with shift button combinations. Also there’s a “release FX” rotary push encoder with three choices: vinyl brake, echo or backspin, this is an excellent feature we had fun with in testing, especially the backspins!
There are needle search strips jump to a particular spot in the track (this can be locked during playback to prevent accidental jumping) and there are controls for adjusting beatgrids on the fly, when pressed you can adjust the grid marker and slide the whole grid and double or half BPM range. You get easily switchable deck control with highly visible indicators, also dual deck control where you can cleverly control decks 1 & 3 or 2 & 4 together for creative looping etc.
Underneath each jogwheel is where most of the fun can be had with the DDJ-RX, this is where you’ll find the transport, performance pads and loop control area. There’s a heap of functionality packed into this space and once you get mastery of what’s what and your shift button combinations you can really let rip creatively here. In fact, the shift button is one of the most important buttons in using this controller if you want to get the most from it, and it really could have done with being a bit bigger, in fact a lot bigger, and closer to the pad section. (Perhaps a swap with the sync button might work Pioneer?)
The pads feel great and the colour-coding used to signal either which effect the pad has or which function you are currently controlling very quickly becomes second-nature. We tested the RX in the studio in a “just having fun” situation, and also on a two-hour live “no mistakes allowed” radio mix show broadcasting globally, and we put the pads through their paces, let’s take each feature in order:
There are eight hot cue buttons per deck, and they feel great, extremely “playable” and responsive. I was caught out a little when triggering cues while the sync and quantise functions were both engaged, with the pads seeming to not work or trigger more than once, but it turned out this was due to incorrectly set-up quantise timing, and once I had quantise set to 1/4 beat instead of 1 beat, the cue triggers behaved themselves. With sync and quantise off you can get into some serious freestyle finger-drumming with these babies!
The hot cue button toggles (with that small shift button again) to the Beat Jump function, now the eight pads give you four different options of moving back or forward a certain number of beats (the default is 1, 2, 4 or 8), again these are colour coded and by using the left/right parameter buttons you can change these so your beat jump can be as little as “fine”, moving up to 1/8 beat all the way to 16 bars. This is a good use of the “pages” that the pad banks have, in this case there are 9 to choose from and you can either move up and down one page at a time or four at a time with the shift + parameter combination. Once you start moving around though, it’s essential you keep an eye on the laptop screen so you know what the pads are doing, at least until the colour coding is learned off by heart.
Next up there are two banks of Pad FX, these are totally configurable in the software, so you can put your favourite FX in any slot you like (including release FX), but the default choices Pioneer has chosen are fantastic and probably the most usable. The awesome thing here is you can use them in combination, so one pad can be holding a 1/4 beat slip loop, and you can hit the other pads to add filter, reverb, delay or even vinyl brake and spin backs on top. Beware though, you really need to have your timing bang on if you want to get super-creative here, one mistimed release can make for an ugly, rhythm disrupting mistake, and these FX are on your main output, not on a dry/wet or separate channel, so anything you do here is loud so has to be spot on!
Selecting the Slicer function puts the software into a mode where it’s continually splicing up the current part of the track playing, into eight equal segments or slices, and making each slice “playable” on one of the pads. The track continues to play through and recreates a new loop (and selection of slices) continually, but at any point you can hit the pads and it loops the related slot to create your own fills and new drum patterns. You can also change the length of the loop (the smaller the loop, the smaller the individual slices are) and also adjust the roll between 1/8 beat and 1/1 beat.
Toggling this mode into Loop Slicer give you the same stuff as before but this time the loop is locked in position and will continue to cycle round in the same part of the track. These worked great and are tons of fun.
Last up of the pad functions is the Sampler and Velocity Sampler. Essentially these are banks of sample slots where you can add one-shot samples or loops that you can trigger and overlay in performance. There’s a few basic samples included in the software (siren, horn etc), which I used in testing. The sampler volume is controlled by its own fader in the middle of the mixer and samples can be synced to the master tempo and auditioned in the headphones with buttons just above the fader. By using the capture button you can save currently looping sections (or all the slices in your current “slicer loop”) to the slots to build your own library, pretty cool.
The “velocity” function gives you control over the same samples but the pads become pressure-sensitive, great for more complex sample-play and finger-drumming performances. Couple this with the built-in sequencer controls just under the tempo fader and you have capability here similar to what you get with Traktor’s Remix Decks, and to be honest it felt similarly fiddly and will for the most part be an underused feature unless you’re looking to go down the controllerism route, but certainly nice to have!
The tempo faders are long and precise, making for easy beatmatching similar to Pioneers CDJ / XDJ players. The overall sensation of mixing and performing on the DDJ-RX is that you can trust it and let rip!
I took the plunge and decided to play my live radio show using the DDJ-RX, after only having had the software and controller for a few days. While it didn’t let me down, it left me shaken a couple of times! It’s worth saying that this part of the review is more to do with the software and its ability to cope under pressure than any criticism on the controller, the RX was solid, easy to navigate and felt sturdy. However there were some panicky moments when the waveforms were stuck on the screen when the music was still playing (after changing page view from browser to full), especially when using multiple pads. I decided to stop the recording to free up processing power and this seemed to help. In all honestly the nerve-jangling experience of DJing live on this set up was not justified, it’s more to do with my lack of experience (and power cable for my computer, doh) than anything going badly wrong with the software and no doubt any small stability issues will be fixed by Pioneer DJ soon enough.
In truth it was rock-solid for two hours, there were no audio dropouts or glitches, and I absolutely LOVE the tag filtering you can do with your tracks, especially for a radio show. Want to play a deep house track with a full song next? Easy, just filter the tags (which you set up to your taste in the software) and there you have ‘em, all the deep house full vocal tracks in your collection or playlist. Need to pick up the energy level? Again, a couple of clicks streamlines your playlist to just your “bangers”. Seasoned Rekordbox users with be laughing at my “new” discovery here, but having mainly used Traktor for a few years, and always been frustrated at the lack of tagging and prep options built-in, this is a revelation, that is now finally viable (to me at least) with the addition of the full DJing capabilities built right into the software.
Use of the performance pads, FX, preview player (which I also love) and mixer functions were all spot on, plus the sound quality was noticeably better than the Traktor S4, the sound cards in this controller sound excellent, even in the headphones.
Considering that along with the DDJ-RZ this is the first of the native controllers for Rekordbox DJ, which itself is only in its first version, Pioneer DJ have done an excellent job, it’s been difficult to find anything wrong with it. Niggles like slow refresh rate on screen changes, small shift button and scroll knob are all forgivable when everything else works so well.
If you’ve been attracted by the power and functionality of the Rekordbox track preparation and music library software, but could never make the jump because you just don’t have access to CDJs (or the money to pay for them), or you want to be able to fully DJ “in software” (like in Traktor and Virtual DJ for example) or you really like playing from a laptop and having all the information on screen, then this is definitely for you. Plus, you can easily make the jump to playing in clubs / touring set-ups by switching to USB, all using the same eco-system.
If you can’t get your head around the jog-less rigidity of Native Instruments’ S8 & S5 then this strikes a good balance between the “real” feel of DJing with CDJs, combined with the most useful (and fun) functions of controllerism.