In the past, if you wanted to learn how to DJ there were no two ways about it – you’d need to get your hands on at least two vinyl turntables and a mixer to connect them to. That would mean a substantial outlay on gear before you’ve even considered the need to buy any actual records to mix with. But in 2020, the best beginner DJ controllers don’t have to mean ‘expensive’, making getting into mixing more accessible than ever.
There are many well-equipped DJ software applications that can be sampled for free or cheap, ranging from iOS apps like Traktor DJ or Algoriddim Djay to intro versions of Serato or Pioneer DJ’s rekordbox. The learning curve has been drastically reduced too, thanks to easy-to-use tools such as auto-sync and smart track recommendations, all of which can help even complete novices mix convincingly.
While it’s perfectly possible to master basic DJ mixing with nothing more than a laptop or mobile device, if you want a more authentic, hands-on experience a controller will help you feel more connected to your chosen DJ application.
In many cases, DJ controllers also offer additional benefits too, such access to extra features of the software or a built-in audio interface allowing you to hook your whole setup to a speaker system like you would with a traditional mixer.
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What are the best beginner DJ controllers right now?
There are a lot of good quality controllers available in the $/£100-250 price range, and you can’t go far wrong with anything from one of the big names like Pioneer DJ, Native Instruments or Numark.
For our money though, Pioneer’s DDJ-200 offers the best combination of value and features for new DJs. The company’s WeDJ app not only allows newbies to DJ on-the-go, but also offers helpful guidance to get you started. The controller maintains the feel of Pioneer’s popular high-end DJ gear, and means the leap up to a more advanced DJ setup in the future shouldn’t feel too daunting.
That said, if you want something that includes an audio interface, Numark’s Mixtrack Platinum FX is a feature packed, sub-$/£250 controller that punches well above its price point and should do you years of service for small party, bar or home DJ sets.
Best beginner DJ controllers: buying advice
Modern DJ controller designs can vary wildly and, for the uninitiated, a lot of the individual features can sound like confusing jargon. Let’s break down the most common specs to look out for.
These are the circular platters seen on CDJs as well as many DJ controllers. Jog wheels replicate the look and function of traditional vinyl turntables, allowing DJs to scroll through records, scratch and ‘nudge’ the timing of a track back or forwards slightly.
If you plan on traditional beat-matching – ie. syncing up the timing of two records by ear – or hip-hop style turntablism and record scratching, then jog wheels are a must.
They’re not essential if you’re happy to rely on the automatic beat-matching capabilities of your chosen DJ software though, which is certainly a viable option given the power of modern applications.
The main elements of any DJ setup are players – the part that actually plays music, often controlled by jog wheels – and a mixer, used to blend several tracks together. Faders are the main control for a mixer, usually split into vertical channel faders – which adjust the volume of an individual track – and the horizontal crossfader, used to blend between two channels. Most DJ controllers have faders in some form, although smaller devices may opt for a simple volume knob instead.
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Some DJ controllers double up as an audio interface, ie. an external sound card. These devices will come complete with some kind of audio output that can be connected to speakers or a PA system. This is generally a much better option than using your laptop’s onboard audio, especially if you’re playing at a party, event or in a club/bar.
In most cases audio interfaces will also include a headphone output, letting users monitor tracks – ie. preview a song without it being heard through the main output. This latter element is an important tool, even for beginner DJs, so unless you’re already using a separate audio interface, looking for a controller with these capabilities built-in is a good idea.
Controllers with inbuilt interfaces may offer additional inputs and outputs too, such as a secondary ‘booth’ output, or an input for a microphone or external sound source (such as a turntable, MP3 player or synth/drum machine).
As the name suggests, a DJ controller is designed to control something, specifically a piece of software running on a computer or mobile device. As such, none of the devices here can be used standalone, and the brand of DJ software you’re drawn to is likely to be a major factor in your choice of controller.
Some controllers are designed to work with multiple applications, while others are limited to use with one specific piece of software. What’s more, some controllers come bundled with a license or free download of one app or another.
For help deciding which is right for you, check out our handy guide to the best DJ software applications.
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Best beginner DJ controllers: other common features
There are plenty of other common features to look out for too. Along with volume faders, most mixer controllers will offer some kind of EQ control, and often filters too.
Once you’ve got to grips with blending one track into another using the faders, these will probably be the next tools you’ll want to hand in order to try blending different frequency elements from separate tracks – eg. the bassline from one song under a vocal from another.
The majority of modern controllers also include some form of ‘performance pads’ for each deck. These can fulfill a variety of roles, from jumping to different ‘cue points’ within a track to triggering loops, samples and effects. While pads aren’t essential for mixing tracks by any means, they’re a fun and creative tool to have in your arsenal for future experimentation.
The best beginner DJ controllers available today
Pioneer’s CDJs are effectively the industry standard, and their vast range of mid- and pro-level DJ controllers are consistently up with the best on the market. Their DDJ-200 offers a stripped-back take on these higher-end devices with jog wheels, a simple mixer and performance pads that look and feel the part without overloading beginners DJs with complexity.
On the software front, the DDJ-200 can be used with Algoriddim Djay, edjing Mix or Pioneer’s own rekordbox and WeDJ applications. The latter of these is an iOS/Android app with some great tutorial features aimed at getting newbies up to speed with the basics of DJing. The ability to step up to the more pro-featured rekordbox software offers a nice route into advanced mixing too.
The DDJ-200 is Bluetooth-equipped to connect to mobile devices or laptops wirelessly, and its power demands are low enough for it to happily run off of a portable USB charger. The WeDJ app allows users to mix with tracks from SoundCloud Go+ or Beatport LINK too – although separate subscriptions to these services are required.
The notable downside here is the lack of an audio interface, meaning you’ll need a separate device for a proper master out/headphones DJ setup – which is reflected in the low price. There is a split audio cable included in the box though, which allows for a rudimentary workaround in order to monitor tracks.
Now in its third generation, NI’s entry-level Traktor controller is one of the most stylish-looking devices you’ll find at this end of the market. It’s sturdily built too, and certainly feels more ‘pro’ than its price point suggests.
The S2 is a controller specifically intended for Native Instruments’ own Traktor ecosystem. It’s designed to work with both the cross-platform, beginner-friendly Traktor DJ app, and the more fully-featured Traktor Pro 3 – and the fact that it ships with a full license for the latter of these is a major selling point.
While the S2 lacks the more complex effect and sampling controls of bigger Traktor controllers, there’s still plenty here for beginners and experienced DJs alike to get their teeth into. It’s far from the cheapest beginner controller out there, but the S2 is likely to satisfy improving DJs even as their needs and ambitions grow.
Numark’s Mixtrack range is one of the more longstanding names in entry-level DJing and has always brought a great balance of features for a low price. Its latest addition, the Platinum FX, might be the best value yet when it comes to bang-for-your-buck.
The Platinum FX is the top end Mixtrack controller, meaning it boasts pro features such as 4-deck mixing, sizeable jog wheels with hi-res displays and a mic input. The FX part of the name signifies the inclusion of a range of cool performance/remix tools such as Hot Cues, Auto Loop, Sampling and Fader Cuts. There’s also a pair of neat paddle switches designed for quickly accessing Serato’s built-in effects. It all adds up to a lot of potential fun, making seemingly advanced DJ tricks easy to achieve.
While the top-end Platinum FX is probably the best value, if you can live without 4-deck mixing and the jog wheel displays, the Mixtrack Pro FX packs many of the same features for around $/£50 cheaper than the Platinum.
In terms of balancing size and features, Numark’s updated DJ2GO is one of the most jam-packed DJ controllers on the market. Its slim form factor could, just about, legitimately be called pocket-sized, but the device still finds space for two jog wheels, a crossfader, built-in interface and four performance pads for each deck.
Numark claims the DJ2GO2’s touch-capacitive jog wheels are capable of handling scratching duties, which is technically true, although their compact size means they’re too fiddly for moves with any real finesse. Still, there’s plenty of fun to be had here.
The controller is designed for use right-out-the-box with the free Serato DJ Lite, but it’s mapped and ready for use with the full paid version – as well as other software – if and when you’re ready to upgrade.
Roland is a relative newcomer to the DJ gear realm, but its range of controllers has a great USP – packing emulations of the brand’s iconic 808, 909 and 707 drum machines into the controller itself.
There are fewer controls here than on the higher-end DJ-505 and DJ-808 controllers, meaning that sequencing those drum sounds is a little more fiddly. That said, the well-sized performance pads are still more than enough to allow users to jam-out drum patterns on the fly, mid-mix.
The DJ-202 also includes a mic input and several onboard vocal effects, including a gate, filters, reverb and echo.
Software-wise, the DJ-202 is designed for use with Serato Lite (included), but if you own or purchase a Serato Pro license, the 202 is fully mapped to make use of the software’s more pro-level features. You’re paying for those quality drum sounds and vocal effects here, so if those appeal then this is a decent value package, otherwise you may get more for your money elsewhere.
A step up in price from the DDJ-200 but still very much in the realms of affordability, the SB3 is a classy-looking and well-equipped Serato controller.
The most interesting feature is the inclusion of something called Pad Scratch, developed alongside DJ Jazzy Jeff (of ‘…and the Fresh Prince’ fame). This effectively lets users recreate the classic record scratching effect at the touch of a button. It’s absolutely cheating and is liable to get you hounded out of town by an angry mob of ’90s turntablists, but it’s undeniably fun.
That aside, there’s a lot of solid features here for the price, including filter and EQ control, audio interface and mic input, hands-on effect control and a looper function. It’s plug-and-play for Serato DJ Lite, but with an upgrade to a full Serato license it’s fully geared up to take control of the software’s effects, sampler and more.
Hercules’ Inpulse range is aimed squarely at beginner DJs. Not only are they affordable and easy-to-use, but they’re specifically set up to teach you how to mix.
The controllers come supplied with Hercules’ own DJUCED software, which makes use of integrated video tutorials and a light guide on the controller itself to demonstrate what-does-what. These tools are coupled with visual ‘beat align’ guides to help visualise the sync of your two decks, along with an ‘Intelligent Music Assistant’ tool, which will automatically suggest the next track to keep your mix going.
The controller hardware itself is a little toy-like and, unlike most controllers in this roundup, there’s no real integration with any of the major DJ applications (Serato, Traktor, rekordbox). The price is very affordable though and for younger budding DJs this could be just the ticket.
Somewhat gimmicky and toy-ish, but pleasingly affordable and fun nonetheless, the USP of Numark’s Party Mix lies in the trio of LEDs along its front edge. These provide what Numark calls a ‘built-in light show’. This is perhaps overselling it a bit – really it’s three coloured lights flashing in sync with the tempo of your tracks; a neat little effect but with little variation and not enough presence to make a difference in any setting larger than a small house party.
Cynicism aside though, the Party Mix boasts a decent crop of features for its price, including two jog wheels, faders, EQ controls and performance pads for each deck. You can turn the lights off when desired too.