A DJ controller is the centerpiece of any mix-master’s club rig. But as more and more music is produced electronically, and in many cases by solo artists, controllers also offer a cool way to perform live — without just pressing play on a laptop.
What Is a DJ Controller?
A controller lets you mix, chop, drop, and otherwise playback recorded tracks and samples. It’s becoming more and more common to link a laptop to a DJ controller from which you can recall all of your songs and sounds, and then easily integrate it with controller software. Some devices are inspired by CDJs and others by vinyl turntables, but modernization is rapidly becoming the norm.
How Does a DJ Controller Work?
In the simplest sense, it’s just a hardware device that lets you mix pre-recorded music from your laptop. Plain and simple. It can be cumbersome to put together a full “set” in a DAW or another way on your computer, so the hardware control, sometimes with its own optimized software, makes the whole DJ process a lot easier.
The most important part is installing the controller’s software on your laptop and getting to know how it works. From there, the physical device lets you play with software parameters and mix your set on the fly.
How to Choose a DJ Controller
When we refer to customization, we’re talking about the ability to assign hardware encoders, knobs, faders, turntables, etc. whatever functions you want. You’ll want to have at least some idea of how you intend to use the device so you can verify that it will function exactly how you need it to.
A lot of controllers come with their DJ software. If that’s not the case, they will sometimes integrate with popular DAWs, such as Ableton Live, which means you can put together a set in your DAW and control it through the hardware. This is a good feature if you’re already familiar with a DAW and don’t want to spend the time learning a specific DJ software.
Vinyl emulators intend to recreate the traditional turntable experience, but in a smaller, less expensive, more rugged package. You can still scratch, slow, and speed up like a real vinyl rig, but on a smaller digital platter.
The 6 Best DJ Controller Stations for Any Budget in 2023
1. Pioneer DJ DDJ-1000 (Best Overall)
The Pioneer DDJ-1000 is a four-channel controller for use with rekordbox DJ software. The full-sized jogwheels have an integrated LCD screen in the center displaying pertinent information such as tempo/key, and they’re also pressure-sensitive for unparalleled feel. The mixer section is well positioned and easily accessible while performing, and 16 touchpads allow you to trigger samples, effects, and more.
2. Hercules DJ DJControl Starlight Controller
The Hercules Starlight Controller controller is perfect for beginners, thanks to its lightweight, intuitive layout and super affordable price. It also comes with a copy of Serato Lite, arguably the most popular DJ software around, which is the perfect introduction to DJing.
3. Numark Mixtrack Platinum FX (Best Affordable Option)
It isn’t as inexpensive as the Hercules, but this Numark Mixtrack Platinum FX has pretty much everything you’d need to perform like a pro. It’s actually quite similar in layout to the Pioneer, including 16 touchpads, large jogwheels with integrated LCDs, and a number of software effects built-in.
4. Pioneer DDJ-SB3 Serato DJ Controller with Pad Scratch
The Pioneer DDJ-SB3 is a beginner’s two-track DJ controller with support for Serato Lite. The Pad Scratch feature lets you reproduce and create patterns from legendary DJ Jazzy Jeff’s own recorded scratches. Plus, the scratch speed stays locked to the BPM so you’ll never miss a beat.
5. Native Instruments Kontrol S4 MK3
This NI controller comes with the standard club layout. The most unique and interesting features are jogwheels that provide haptic feedback paired with a turntable mode that makes them feel like a real vinyl turntable. It integrates with NI’s Traktor Pro 3 DJ software, and comes with a ton of other amazing features for this price point.
6. Roland DJ-505
The DJ-505 is a DJ controller which doubles as a beat-creation station, including 606, 707, 808, and 909 drum machines built into it. You can trigger drum sounds or Serato samples via a 16-step sequencer. This is a high-end DJ controller in a slim, discrete package made to gig.