With the nature of today’s music-making software, it is possible to DJ with any DAW, or other audio manipulation software that outputs MIDI. It’s what you do with that MIDI information that counts.
Plug in any old MIDI controller and you will have plenty of tactile options to perform your music live. Take a look in many DJ booths this weekend and you may just see MIDI pad controllers from the likes of Novation, Akai and Native Instruments.
However, in this roundup we’ll just be concerning ourselves those controllers aimed at digital DJs only rolling with laptops, or mobile devices, so there’ll be no CDJs and other timecode systems.
How to choose
There are a few factors to consider when choosing a DJ controller, the biggest being your choice of software. If you favour Serato DJ, it’s important to note that the software is only compatible with certain controllers, built in collaboration with Serato - a full list of which can be found over at their site.
In fact, the majority of DJ controllers will be designed with one or two specific bits of software in mind, and many come with a certain application included in the price - so your choice of controller is likely to be very much influenced by your DJ app preference (or, possibly, vice versa).
It’s also worth considering whether you’ll need an audio interface built in - ie, the capability to connect turntables, CDJs or an instrument to your setup - and if you might want to expand with timecoded vinyl or CDs in the future. Some controllers included here also work as a standalone mixer, without the need to connect to a computer, which could be another consideration.
Then there’s size, looks, build quality, price... the list goes on. In short, it’s difficult to crown any one bit of kit ‘the best’ controller, but what we can do is present you with a round-up of our favourites among the options currently available.
1. Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S8
Best high-end Traktor controller
Launch price: $1499/£999/€1199 | Connectivity: USB 2.0 | Channels: 4 | Deck control: 4 | Audio resolution: 24-bit/48kHz | Analogue inputs: 5 | Analogue outputs: 2 | MIDI: In and Out
Removing one of the most obvious controls from a DJ controller is a bold move, but NI claims that the new touchstrips can be used in place of jog wheels and there's some truth in this. With a track stopped, these can be used to 'scratch' the current track, while holding down Shift puts them into Seek mode, allowing the user to jump to any part of the track. With the track playing, these become Pitchbend controls, which - to be fair - are surprisingly well implemented and can be used for basic, 'nudge'-style beat-matching. The absence of pitch faders rules out any serious beat-matching though.
Read full review: Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S8
2. Pioneer DJ DDJ-SB3
Best Serato controller for beginners
Launch price: $249/£229/€259 | Connectivity: USB | Channels: 2 | Deck control: 4 | Audio resolution: 24-bit/96kHz | Analogue inputs: 2 | Analogue outputs: 2 | Digital connectivity: None
The DDJ-SB3 is a 2-channel DJ controller that’s designed specifically for use with the Serato DJ Lite software. Its layout is similar to that of the more expensive DDJ-S devices and includes jog wheels, performance pads, play and cue buttons and independent auto loop buttons. Updated from the DDJ-SB2, the SB3 offers a feature called Pad Scratch, which was created in collaboration with DJ Jazzy Jeff. This enables you to initiate eight of his trademark scratch techniques - the scratch is automatically matched to the track’s BPM - which can be used in isolation or in combination with your own scratching.
Read more: Pioneer DJ DDJ-SB3
3. Denon MCX8000
Best high-end Serato controller
Launch price: $1299/£1149/€1299 | Connectivity: 2x USB 2.0 | Channels: 4 | Deck control: 4 | Audio resolution: 24-bit/96kHz | Analogue inputs: 6 | Analogue outputs: 3 | Digital connectivity: Stage LinQ
The MCX8000 from Denon DJ is the company’s flagship controller, which it proudly states is "the first true DJ hardware/software controller". Bold words, but then the specs on the 8000 are pretty impressive. Not only can this 4-deck device be used to control Serato DJ on your computer, but thanks to the inclusion of the Denon DJ Engine software, it can also operate completely standalone. Comparatively cheaper than other standalone controllers from leading manufacturers, the MCX8000 also includes a Stage LinQ network connection to control lighting and video.
Read more: Denon MCX8000
4. Pioneer DJ DDJ-RB
Best budget rekordbox DJ controller
Launch price: $249/£219/€249 | Connectivity: USB 2.0 | Channels: 2 | Deck control: 2 | Audio resolution: 24-bit/44.1 kHz | Analogue inputs: 1 | Analogue outputs: 2 | Digital connectivity: None
Pioneer DJ’s entry-level rekordbox DJ controller is relatively lightweight and not too bulky, so will fit inside most backpacks. Bundled with the controller is, of course, rekordbox DJ software, but rekordbox DVS isn’t included but a paid upgrade. Inspired by the larger RZ and RX models, the RB includes some more advanced features for a product in this price range. The Sequence Call function allows you to create sample sequences and then play them directly. Further performance functionality comes courtesy of Hot Cues, Pad FX, Beat Jump and the Slicer effect with the 16 performance pads.
Read more: Pioneer DJ DDJ-RB
5. Pioneer DJ DDJ-1000
Best high-end rekordbox DJ controller
Launch price: $1199/£1059/€1199 | Connectivity: 2x USB 2.0 | Channels: 4 | Deck control: 4 | Audio resolution: 24-bit/96kHz | Analogue inputs: 6 | Analogue outputs: 3 | Digital connectivity: None
The DDJ-1000 is designed to take advantage of the new features in the updated version of rekordbox DJ software (v5.1). These include the Related Tracks feature, which gives you more options for finding tracks that are matched to the ones you’re currently playing. The rekordbox dj Plus Pack, meanwhile, adds an Automix feature - this uses the upgraded track analysis tools to automatically and seamlessly mix your music.
Read more: Pioneer DJ DDJ-1000
6. Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol Z1
Best budget Traktor controller
Launch price: $199/£159/€199 | Connectivity: USB 2.0 | Channels: 2 | Deck control: 2 | Audio resolution: 24-bit/96kHz | Analogue inputs: None | Analogue outputs: 2 | Digital connectivity: None
The Z1 is the same size and shape as the popular F1 and X1 controllers from NI, but the layout is that of a traditional two-channel DJ mixer, complete with a built-in audio interface for monitoring. This is Native’s Instruments’ first controller designed for use with Traktor DJ software on iOS, allowing for a very portable set-up.
Read full review: Native Instruments Kontrol Z1
7. Numark DJ2GO2
Best compact controller
Launch price: $99/£79/€99 | Connectivity: USB 2.0 | Channels: 2 | Deck control: 2 | Audio resolution: 24-bit/48kHz | Analogue inputs: 1 | Analogue outputs: 1 | Digital connectivity: None
A built-in sound card with master gain, headphone output for cueing and channel gain knobs makes DJ2GO2 an ideal portable pocket DJ controller. It has two channels with a crossfader and pitch faders for easy blending, while the pad modes give you access to performance controls typically found on larger controllers. The DJ2GO2 may not be everyone’s first choice, but for the price and such a small imprint in your gear list, could be the perfect back-up controller for the DJ on the road.
Read more: Numark DJ2GO2
8. Reloop Mixon 4
Best iOS and Android controller
Launch price: $799/£635/€699 | Connectivity: USB 2.0 | Channels: 4 | Deck control: 4 | Audio resolution: 24-bit/48kHz | Analogue inputs: 1 | Analogue outputs: 3 | Digital connectivity: iOS (DIN to Lightning)
The Mixon 4 from Reloop is the company’s flagship hybrid-controller and the only kind of its type in this guide. Designed for both Serato Pro DJ and Algoriddim djay PRO, the Mixon 4 is capable of mixing on PC, Mac, iOS and Android. Plus, there’s also Spotify integration within djay 2 software, which will require a premium subscription. The controller includes four deck control, a four channel audio interface, 16 performance pads and a docking station that can hold a 12.9” iPad Pro.
Read more: Reloop Mixon 4
9. Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol D2
Best controller add-on
Launch price: $499/£429/€499 | Connectivity: 1x USB host, 2x USB hub | Channels: 1 | Deck control: 1 | Audio resolution: N/A | Analogue inputs: None | Analogue outputs: None | Digital connectivity: None
If you’re looking to get Stems-ready control into your setup without the need to spend big on an S8, then the D2 is a perfect solution. The D2 is effectively a single deck from the S8 - doing away with the mixer and interface elements, and offering a single set of the S8's track control, performance, effect and browsing features. It appears to be aimed squarely at DJs who want to slot the creative elements of the S8's feature set into their existing DJ setup, allowing them to continue using their existing interface or mixer.
Read full review: Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol D2
10. Pioneer DJ DDJ-SX3
Best Serato DJ controller under £1,000
Launch price: $1,199/£969/€1,098 | Connectivity: USB 2.0 x2 | Channels: 4 | Deck control: 4 | Audio resolution: 24-bit/44.1 kHz | Analogue inputs: 5 | Analogue outputs: 4 | Digital connectivity: None
Pioneer DJ’s DDJ-SX line debuted back in 2012, and has arguably retained the crown of being the highest-quality, and most powerful Serato DJ controller available for under a grand. Version 3 arrived earlier this year, further refining the already winning formula. The DDJ-SX3 looks very similar to its predecessors. Again, the controller is small enough to transport pretty easily, but with its sturdy chassis and aluminium top it’s also rugged feeling, and you’d expect it to tolerate regular club use without issue. The jogwheels are small, but responsive and sturdy, with a feel not dissimilar to those on Pioneer’s CDJ line. The DDJ-SX3 is four-channel. Each channel of its central mixer can be switched between digital inputs from Serato DJ or analogue RCA, and the control decks can be flipped to control up to four Serato decks simultaneously. As a result, the SX3 can act as a hub/mixer for four digital decks, four external players or any combination of the above.
Read the full review: Pioneer DJ DDJ-SX3