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Pioneer DJ DDJ-SB3 Controller Review

Pioneer DJ Pro serato
Last updated 19 May, 2018

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The Lowdown

The Pioneer DDJ-SB3 is the third in the line of one of the most popular controller partnerships of all time between Serato and Pioneer DJ. This latest incarnation of the entry-level SB controller series is a more grown-up affair than ever before. Sure it’s cut down, basic and pretty plasticky, but the trickle-down of features from more expensive gear is greater than ever, and it continues to provide an awesome way to get started in DJing.

Video Review

First Impressions / Setting up

Oh, the fuss! Oh, the uproar! How dare Pioneer DJ put a button on a controller that – Heaven forbid – scratches for you? What on earth was Jazzy Jeff thinking endorsing it, and even lending his scratch patterns for Pioneer DJ to use? Surely this signals the end of DJing?

Well, no actually. The Pioneer DJ DDJ-SB3 is simply a beginner DJ controller, and a damned fine one at that, that also just happens to have a neat little feature that indeed let you mess around with some classic, simple scratch patterns if you so wish. It’s actually a pretty neat feature. But in reality, it’s a small part of this controller.

Software

The DDJ-SB3 is powered by a cut-down version of Serato’s Pro package, called Serato DJ Lite. This is standard among Serato controllers at the price point, and is fine for getting started on.

While any serious DJ is definitely going to want the Serato DJ Pro package at some point (Lite lacks features like beat jump, loop roll, slicer, slip mode, set recording, high-quality effects, and countless more), actually the pairing of the DDJ-SB3 and Serato DJ Lite is a good one – and truthfully, once you own Serato DJ Pro, I suspect you’ll start eyeing more professional controllers, too.

As with all DJ controllers built for all flavours of Serato DJ software, setting up is easy. You head over to the Serato website, register your email address, download the software, install, plug in, and you’re off. The unit is USB-powered, so there’s no need for external power (indeed, this isn’t an option).

Getting started

Brand new DJs have a few extra hoops to jump through when getting started, so if you are new to all of this, let’s run through them: You’ll need local music (ie you can’t DJ from your Spotify or Apple Music collection – time to head online and get buying some MP3s), and you can’t use your laptop’s speakers, either: You’ll need to plug in some powered speakers, hook up to your home cinema system, or whatever you have. There is no audio lead provided, so you’ll need to find a 2 x RCA-to-whatever-input-you-require cable.

DDJ-SB3 rear
Just the very basic connections round the back, and note that it is (only) USB powered.

It’s also a good idea to have a pair of headphones, and they’ll need to have an 1/8″ minijack connector, as that’s the only option on the DDJ-SB3. Finally, if you want to use a microphone, it’ll have to be a 1/4″ jack (TS) unbalanced type – no pro XLR inputs here (and neither would you expect them). The single mic input on the back of the unit has a tiny volume control, and apart from that it bypasses the DDJ-SB3’s controls entirely.

Once you’ve analysed your music (this lets Serato work out things like BPM and track waveforms), you’re ready to go.

In Use

The DDJ-SB3 feels small, light, and plasticky in use. That said, it is sturdy, and to all intents and purposes performs like a basic, shrunken version of bigger controllers such as the Pioneer DJ DDJ-1000.

That’s because its design is thoroughly “grown up”: Asymmetric decks, sober colours, eight performance pads per side, standard trim/lo/mid/hi channel controls, individual channel filters… It’s actually pretty fully featured for an entry-level device.

Jogs, transport and pitch controls

The most important part of any controller for me are the jogwheels, and these, while small, are well made (they’re aluminium), feel good, and they’re responsive and reliable.

They come with the usual vinyl/CDJ behaviour modes, and holding Shift while turning the jogs allows you to “scrub” quickly through your loaded track. The transport buttons (Play/Pause and Cue) are an improvement over the rubbery ones on the DDJ-SB2, being hard and laid out like those on pro gear.

The tempo (pitch) controls are small and short, but they’re responsive down to 0.02%, which is more than enough for accurate manual beatmixing, albeit a bit fiddly in practice. Tempo range can be toggled between 8%, 16% and 50%, and there’s a key lock button for fixing pitch while you alter tempo.

FX
The effects are basic but easy enough to use. The pitch controls are short throw but surprisingly accurate, if a little fiddly when manual beatmixing.

Mixer and browser controls

The mixer section is concise, small and does the basic job needed on such a controller. It’s only two channel, although there are four “decks” available, as there are switches to flick between decks 1 and 3 on the left, and 2 and 4 on the right. As well as the aforementioned volume/EQ/filter controls, you get master and headphone levels, and headphone cue (“PFL”) buttons for both the active decks and the master – the latter control replaces a knob for master/cue mix.

The VU meters are split; the one on the left is the pre-fader volume for the left-hand deck/s, the one on the right for the right-hand decks. There is no master VU out, and I would have liked to have seen some provision for this.

At the top of the mixer is a single rotary encoder for browsing tracks in your library, and pushing down on it switches between your folder/playlist tree and the currently selected tracks. Two Load buttons let you arm the left and right decks accordingly; press the opposite Load button to the currently playing track twice and the same track loads and plays simultaneously on the other deck (“instant doubles”).

Holding down Shift and moving the line faders up, or doing the same with the crossfader, enables “fader start”, a featured beloved of some mobile DJs, but also potentially of use in more creative mixing styles. This is where the track starts playing as soon as the fader is “live”. In the Utility settings you can even specify whether this happens with Sync on or off.

Effects

There are two effects engines, each containing three effects. While the effects available in Lite are limited, they cover the basics. Once nice feature is that they are post fader; this hasn’t always the case with budget controllers.

The effects engines aren’t assignable, being fixed permanently to decks 1 and 3 (left) and 2 and 4 (right). Each effect can be turned on and off, while holding Shift and repeatedly pressing an effect button opens the effect menu and cycles through the available effects. A single wet/dry knob per effects engine controls intensity across all three effects at once.

Luckily, the Fade FX add a bit of novelty to the effects on offer here; we’ll get to those shortly.

Performance pads (including “Jazzy Jeff” mode)

pads
The performance pads have lots of beginner-friendly and fun functions. Note that they’re not full colour – they’re just off or red.

The pads are where you access Hot Cues, FX Fade, Pad Scratch (aka “the “Jazzy Jeff button”), Sampler and Transformer (“Trans”). While the sampler is a stripped down simple sample triggering affair (four slots), the same with the Hot Cues (the other “slots” in both of these settings being used for some additional transport controls including Censor), the remaining three functions are a bit more fun.

“FX Fade” combines filters, loops/loop rolls and spinbacks with a slowly reducing volume for as long as one of the eight pads are held, the idea being that you sync two tracks, and use these buttons to help you achieve a good-sounding transition. The results could be achieved “manually”, but the one-button versions are fun nonetheless.

Meanwhile, the Trans feature applies a transformer, or gate, to the selected track, which means it is switched off and on rapidly in time to the beat – it’s a cool effect that sounds especially nice on vocals, and there are eight timing variations to play with.

That leaves us with the “Jazzy Jeff” button, or officially, “Pad Scratch”. Basically, whatever sound Hot Cue 1 is set to is scratched automatically when you hold any one of the eight performance pads, with patterns supplied by Jazzy Jeff himself. Moreover, everything happens (roughly, in practice) in time with any other track or tracks you may have playing.

The patterns are simple (from Baby Scratch upwards), but they work fine and are fun; again, you could just as easily do them using the jogwheel, but according to Jazzy Jeff himself (see my exclusive interview with him), that’s the point: These are here to introduce beginners to scratching, and to show them what to practise.

I agree with him: It’s a great feature for a beginner controller. It would have been nice to have Slip mode to work with this scratch mode, but I guess you can’t have everything!

What do you think? Have you bought this? Are you tempted? Let us know your thoughts in the comments.

Conclusion

Weirdly, I think Pioneer DJ would rather not have made this controller at all! After all, the company has its own range of controllers for its own software, Rekordbox DJ. But truth is that the DDJ-SB2 before it before it sold by the bucketload, and so people clearly still love Serato. And with Jazzy Jeff’s endorsement, this controller is all set to be another major success for the Pioneer/Serato partnership.

It actually improves on the DDJ-SB2 in more ways than just a few mode tweaks: The layout is better, the buttons are better, and it just feels a bit more “grown up”, but at the same price point.

“Add scratch effects without a turntable” screams the manual. Actually, you can scratch just fine on the jogwheels of the DDJ-SB3, and you can also completely ignore the built-in “auto scratch” function if you want. Whatever your feelings on it, don’t let that sway your decision on this controller too much: These functions are actually quite a small part of the feature set, and it is a fine budget controller aside from all of that.

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