Pioneer DJ’s next-generation all-in-one controller prompts you to leave your laptop at home. The XDJ-RX is relatively good value as an all-in-one costing less than the price of two XDJ-1000 players, and has many of the practical benefits of controller DJing running on a laptop, save for a more efficient library search feature that we wish it had. The built-in screen will be a big draw for digital DJs, and since it relies on Pioneer’s Rekordbox software, making the transition to modern DJ booths that have compatible CDJs becomes less of a chore.
First Impressions / Setting up
On paper at least, the XDJ-RX is the first controller from Pioneer that has convincing answers to some of the big shortcomings people roll out when it comes to software DJing – and I’m not referring to the detractors who won’t give it a go, but those of us who’ve done it for years and still see things about it that aren’t perfect.
Now with the XDJ-RX, for the first time it’s possible to see how a beginner DJ could buy this as their first controller, learning how to DJ on it the “Pioneer” way, and so theoretically carry those skills right across into the pro DJ booth when ready with a minimal learning curve to adjust to. Since one of the issues people have with software / controller DJing is “but the club I want to play in has CDJs, and I don’t know how to use them!”, this could turn out to be significant.
Of course, while Pioneer’s top-end gear is chock-a-block with features, gorgeous screens and so on, what we’re looking at here today is a more modest controller, and there would be no point leaving the laptop at home if the alternative were not up to the job of DJing on, as compared to today’s modern controller / software solutions. So for the rest of this review, we’ll look at the XDJ-RX itself, before returning to the question of whether it now offers a viable alternative to controller / software DJing, fun and feature-wise, right at the end.
Rekordbox: A primer
Rekordbox is Pioneer’s DJ software solution, but it’s different to Serato, Traktor, Virtual DJ and the like, in that it is not intended to go into the DJ box with you. Rather, it’s intended to be used to prepare your music beforehand, so that you can do all kinds of cool controller-type stuff in the DJ booth, without the laptop being there with you.
By preparing your music beforehand, not only do I mean all the automatic stuff (analysing for waveforms, volume, keys and so on), but also all the other things you typically do yourself when preparing tunes for DJing (such as preparing cue points and loops, checking the beatgrid, and organising your music into meaningful playlists).
The big idea is that when you’re in the DJ booth, you want to be performing, not preparing, which is why Pioneer figures you don’t really want the laptop there with you, as it’s unnecessary and potentially unreliable; with Rekordbox, you take your music and all that clever analysis work with you (typically on a USB stick), plug in, and the Pioneer set-up becomes essentially one big DJ controller but minus the laptop fuss.
Setting up is a case of plugging in the power and your powered speakers, and adding a music source, typically a library of music prepared in Rekordbox and brought with you on USB. (You can also plug in an iOS or Android device via USB should you have Rekordbox-prepared music on that, or indeed – and a little confusingly if you’re new to all of this and trying to work out the difference between these systems! – a laptop that contains your Rekordbox library.)
Once your USB drive or other source is connected, you hit the button that corresponds with the input you’re using, and your Rekordbox library appears on the big, 7″ colour screen centre-top of the XDJ-RX. Then by browsing through the Rekordbox library using the big browse knob centre of the controller, you can select a tune, hit a deck load button, and hit play to hear the music. Pretty simple, then.
Basically what you have here is two CDJs minus the CD slots and a two-channel Pioneer mixer, so the set-up is very reminiscent of any Pioneer DJ booth set-up you can think of. That said, the XDJ-RX has the biggest nod towards DJ controllers yet from any Rekordbox gear (notably the performance “pads” underneath the DDJ-SX-style jogwheels, and of course that big screen).
The mixer is true standalone, so you can plug record decks / CDJs etc in too, and the inputs and outputs of the unit are extensive, with booth, record and master outs and a pro mic input with talkover, EQ etc. Plus, you also get a decent selection of Pioneer “Sound Color” effects and beat effects, and proper VU metering (both per channel and master).
Controller DJs reading this and comparing features may well be realising at this point that a lot of this stuff is missing from most DJ controllers, even more expensive ones; even DJs who are used to Pioneer DJ booth mixers will notice that really, the only major thing missing here from such gear (apart from four mixer channels, of course) is a “split cue” for the headphones output.
Let’s look a little more closely at the mixer section. It’s only two channel, and has a library browse knob and buttons in the middle as DJ controllers do, but otherwise as stated above it looks, feels and acts like any pro Pioneer mixer.
Each channel has switchable inputs (digital and analogue), as well as three-band EQ, gain, and the Sound Color FX knob, which here controls Filter, Beatcrusher, Gate and White Noise. Like nearly all Pioneer mixers since the early 90s, there’s the beat-matched FX engine too for echo, delay, transform and other effects that are tied to the BPM of the track; this engine is assignable to any channel of your choice, the mic, or the master, and these effects are post-fader and post crossfader.
Unlike with DJ controllers, these are hardware FX, meaning the clever stuff happens in the unit, not in the software (as of course there is no laptop attached running software…)
There’s a crossfader curve switch with three settings from “cut” to smooth that sets the behaviour of what is a very typical Pioneer crossfader (ie it’s OK, but not up to Innofader standards), and there’s even a line fader curve too, although this is adjusted in the preferences, which we’ll come to later.
The decks are very, very typical Pioneer fare: Big jogwheel (capacitive, not mechanical) with visual feedback from LEDs in the centre; vertically stacked Play/Pause and Cue round buttons; Track Search and Search button pairs; Loop In/Out buttons; a big tempo slider; a Master Tempo (key lock) button, plus a smattering of other controls.
There are a few differences to point to for those of you used to other Pioneer gear. One is that the “vinyl speed adjust” adjusts the start and stop speed together, but here you can set this to one or the other in preferences if (like most DJs) you only want the “vinyl effect” on stopping a track, not on starting it.
Another is that Slip made has made it onto here (Slip mode means keeping the track “playing” underneath when you’re scratching, cueing or reversing, for instance), which is one example of the best ideas from controller / software systems creeping into Pioneer gear, as has happened in recent times.
The most notable departure, though, is the addition of four backlit “performance pad”-style buttons underneath each deck, which give you control of four cue points (a big improvement on the XDJ-1000´s touchscreen cues), auto looping (1/8 of a beat to 8 beats, would like to see this extended to 32 beats, or at least with a selectable range in the preferences), and loop slicing; again, these are typical software DJing features that are appearing on a Rekordbox controller for the first time. I’ve never seen anyone demonstrate loop slicing convincingly for my ears, but I remain patient on that one!
But the screen is where the real new stuff is, because that bright, 7″ panel at the centre of this whole unit is what ultimately makes DJing on the XDJ-RX feel like using software, not CDJs. Containing parallel waveforms (zoomable and in colour), plus all your track information, full information on the tunes you’re playing including cover art, and an OK library browser (more on that in a second), plus beat quantise (for effortless sync mixing and cue / loop juggling), it’s this screen that makes you realise that for the first time on a Pioneer Rekordbox controller, there’s a big chance you are not going to miss your laptop here.
And indeed, that’s how it transpires DJing with the unit. When you have two tracks loaded, control is just as good as on any software system, and indeed insofar as it feels like you’re using Pioneer DJ booth gear, better. The screen isn’t as good as the CDJ-2000nexus (or the XDJ-1000), but it’s good enough, and combined with sync (again, the sync function here is a major advance for Pioneer DJ gear, first arriving on the CDJ-2000nexus, although of course familiar to software DJs for over a decade), it’s honestly the case that mixing with this unit feels broadly like using a laptop and software with a good controller.
It’s when you browse your library that the feeling falls apart a bit. Now don’t get me wrong, browsing is pretty good, and its shortcomings are not a deal-breaker, but one of the big strengths of software DJing is that browsing and searching your music – and crucially, using a Qwerty keyboard – are easy. But with no keyboard here, and no touchscreen version of it like on the XDJ-1000, you have to resort to entering search words letter-by-letter, in the excruciating “TV remote control” style: This is a no-go for me.
Of course, it’s advisable to prepare your playlists properly in the first place so you simply scroll through manageable crates to choose your next tune, and that’s fine, but the ability to attach a Bluetooth or even wired keyboard (or better, have the screen touch-sensitive for an onscreen Qwerty keyboard like the XDJ-1000), would fix this rather major niggle.
By pressing and holding the Menu button under the screen, you can access the system preferences, which contain a lot of choices, of which I’m going to highlight a few here.
A couple we’ve already mentioned: There’s the vinyl speed behaviour (you can have the vinyl slow down / start up knob affect either of those features or both by setting your choice here), and I’ve also spoken of the line fader curve setting here, which is a nice touch.
But also you can set the unit into Midi mode for use as a “traditional” DJ controller with DJ software that can be mapped such as Traktor or Virtual DJ (great if you want to make the transition to Rekordbox gradually), and – my personal favourite – a highly useful brightness control for the display, so you can set it to be clear and easy to read in broad sunlight, while also so as not to dazzle you in a dark DJ booth. The XDJ-RX is not compatible with Serato DJ at the time of this writing.
Finally, let’s look at recording your sets. In software, recording is as simple as, well, hitting “record”. In the XDJ-RX, you can use one of the USB slots to put in a USB stick to record to, and it works really well, even recording your vinyl decks, microphone etc. too.
Let’s list some of the things this does right. Firstly, it’s relatively good value, costing US$1499 against US$999 for just a single XDJ-1000, of which you’d need two plus a mixer for a set-up comparable to what you have here. That puts the XDJ-RX within the sights of truly serious beginner DJs, if not by any means into the sights of everyone.
Secondly, the XDJ-RX has many of the practical benefits of a DJ controller, namely that everything is in one box, and so it’s relatively easy to move around, but with the standard layout and features of Pioneer DJ gear that will be instantly recognisable to any DJ used to playing on any Pioneer set-up from the past 20 years. With Pioneer’s Rekordbox laptop analysis pre-gig making it possible for Pioneer DJ equipment to more and more do what software / controller DJs can do, this controller has a lot of the fun of those systems, but with the added benefit of a small learning curve between it and the pro DJ booth.
There are a few caveats though. Firstly, the search is still so-so. Secondly, while it is true that a new DJ could learn to DJ on one of these, and take his or her Rekordbox USB stick and DJ in a pro DJ booth, if that same DJ was relying on the “sync” button in the pro booth rather than manual beatmatching, they could – it could be argued – still get “found out” when stepping up to a club where the gear is older and the sync button isn’t there.
Also, when we speak of pro DJ booths, we are assuming Rekordbox use here, and again, many older booths (and many DJs) don’t have the ability/desire to use Rekordbox at all. Successfully coming from the XDJ-RX to a DJ booth that contains CD-only CDJs – even if the DJ has had the forethought to burn all of his or her music to CDs – will entail the same old steep learning curve as coming from software.
And currently, Rekordbox itself is not perfect: It’s come a long way to arrive at v3, but it is still slow to export music the USB, just one of the areas it still has some catching up to do with the other software platforms.
Who’s it for?
Well, beginner DJs who have their sights on playing in pro DJ booths will be interested, although such DJs would do well to avoid the Sync button at least some of the time, and be prepared to burn their tunes to CD (or at least think about life outside the Rekordbox ecosystem) if they want to be able to play in any Pioneer-equipped DJ booth, for the time being at least. The fact that you can use it with DJ software too will be appealing to such people, too.
Pro DJs who want a controller for home use will see a lot to like here too, as everything will be very familiar to them. Likewise, DJs returning to the game after a break (family, kids etc – we know there are lots of you out there!) will be interested because the XDJ-RX has most of the bells and whistles of digital DJing, but essentially is not so far removed from what you’ll remember from “back in the day” – assuming you used to use CDJs and not vinyl, of course. (Then again, your old turntables will plug in here too so you can play with your vinyl alongside digital – and record the whole lot thanks to that nifty USB record function.)
Mobile DJs will love the “pro” look and the convenient all-in-one nature of the unit, but won’t like the lack of easy Qwerty search or the limitations of USB for carrying around a large collection. Of course, you can take your laptop and plug it in at your gig via Ethernet to access your entire collection, but then you are also pitching this against any other controller/laptop combination.)
Is it as good as software DJing?
Ultimately, though, the question we opened with was: Is this now as good as software DJing, but without the laptop? (By “good”, I mean “as much fun”.) And broadly, I’d say it is. Looking at the XDJ-RX’s predecessors, the XDJ-Aero with all its wireless goodness was ultimately answering questions nobody was asking, and for us digital fans the XDJ-R1 felt too much like boring, limited old school CD DJing.
The XDJ-RX, though, is the first controller to come close to hitting the spot with Rekordbox – close enough for us to feel excited about using it. Aside from the library searching issue, there’s not much I missed here from DJing with Traktor, Serato or Virtual DJ plus a controller – and I did like the Pioneer look and feel.
It will be interesting to see what comes next. I would like to see Pioneer release a controller like this with four channels and a touchscreen priced a bit higher, and another one, again with a touchscreen (leaving that off the XDJ-RX was a mistake), but without all the complicated inputs and outputs of this unit, only controlling two software channels, and so coming in cheaper.
Nevertheless, the XDJ-RX is very, very good. Pioneer is coming close to landing a killer punch outside the DJ booth, something pretty significant since the company is already the undisputed champion within it.