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Choosing between a mixer and a controller depends on what type of DJing you intend on doing. A classic setup is best for turntablists and DJs who want to perform tricks. A controller is better for DJs who require modern effects and tools and are more concerned with mixing.
You’re a DJ in search of a new setup. You’ve discovered that there are several different paths that you can take. One of them is CDJs and a DJ mixer, and the other is an all-in-one DJ controller.
This can be a hard decision with long-term impacts. DJ gear can be expensive, and you might only get one chance to buy new DJ equipment in a decade!
Each option has benefits and drawbacks and reasons why they may or may not be the right fit for you.
Let’s take a deeper look at both setups and what they entail. We’ll look at what each does and why you might need to choose one over the other.
What Is A DJ Mixer?
Mixers come in a wide variety of shapes and sizes. They usually have at least one main crossfader and one volume control for each channel.
Lower-end mixers generally have two channels and a mic input.
If you’re new to the concept of a mixer, the primary purpose is to play multiple audio sources simultaneously and control the volume of each independently. A mixer is a critical piece in a DJ’s setup.
Not all mixers are the same. As the price increases for mixers, the functionality and features do too. Additional channels and built-in audio interfaces can impact the price of mixers.
Traditional mixers are tried and tested. DJs have been using them for decades. Most of them are built to last and survive the journey from one club or party to the next.
A clear difference between a controller and a mixer is for the latter; you’ll also need a set of CDJs or turntables. Another distinction is that you don’t need a computer when using a standard mixer with turntables, and it also allows you to play traditional vinyl records.
Drawbacks Of A DJ Mixer
The main drawback of a DJ mixer is that you will need additional equipment (turntables/CDJs) to go with it. This can drastically crank the price up, so hopefully, you have deeper pockets! With more kit comes less space, and that’s the next drawback going the DJ mixer route. Unlike a compact and easy-to-transport DJ controller, two turntables/CDJs, a mixer, and cables soon become big, heavy, and not very portable.
What Is A DJ Controller?
Modern DJ Controllers are digital devices that emulate a traditional DJ setup. They’re generally a combo pack of two digital turntables and a mixer. The controller connects to a computer and works through MIDI to play digital songs.
DJ Controllers have been refined and matured over the last fifteen years and are commonplace in today’s world. The technology began as an external MIDI audio interface and time-coded control records. Modern controllers use wheels to emulate where the records once sat.
This option is excellent for many reasons, including entry price, portability, and convenience.
A DJ Controller can present a great entry path for new DJs interested in learning the basics. DJs don’t even have to own any vinyl to get started when buying a controller.
Controllers do need to be connected to a computer to function. They communicate through a MIDI audio interface to your computer. The wheels translate information to control songs you load into the DJ software included with the controller.
The industry standards for DJ software are Serato DJ, Traktor, and Rekordbox DJ.
The Drawbacks Of A DJ Controller
One aspect of a DJ controller that isn’t great is if one part of it fails, the whole system fails. I’ve experienced this first hand when the pitch control stopped working on my Pioneer DJ DDJ-400 when it was out of warranty! This means either spending out on a replacement or a pricey repair.
Another drawback is that the feel isn’t the same for long-term DJs migrating to the digital world.
Features Comparison, Which Is Better?
When choosing a mixer or controller, there are many aspects to consider. To complicate matters, both pieces of gear have a wide range of options.
Some mixers have MIDI audio interfaces allowing them to use time control records. In addition, some modern DJ controllers also enable a DJ to play traditional vinyl records. These types of features increase the price of the gear, though.
Let’s look at a comparison for lower-end, entry-level models of a mixer and a controller.
The table compares the standard functionality presented by each piece of DJ equipment. This is intentionally done with beginner DJs in mind.
Stand Out Features
Let’s take a look at a more broken-down analysis of the features of each of these different types of DJ equipment.
- Crossfader – Used for controlling and swapping the two primary audio sources
- Channels – Each audio source is routed to a channel with independent volume controls
- RCA in/out – Most standard mixers run RCA from the audio source and to the speaker system
- Power Supply – External power supply that plugs into a wall
- Crossfader – Used to change between the two primary audio sources.
- Channels – Responsible for controlling the volume of each audio source independently
- MIDI to USB – Controllers connect to the host computer through a USB cable vs RCA
- USB Powered – Controllers are usually powered through the USB connection to the host computer and don’t require another external power supply.
- Hot Cue Points – Lower-end controllers usually have a few extra buttons to support functionality like hot cue points. This will jump to a specific timestamp of a song and isn’t something possible with a traditional DJ setup.
- Effects – Most controllers, even entry-level ones, have at least a few buttons used to trigger effects.
- Jog Wheels – Controllers have discs intended to emulate real work turntables with vinyl records. These are used in place of the vinyl records to control the songs while Djing.
- Plays Digital Files – Low-end controllers will play digital files using the jog wheels but will not play standard vinyl records.
What To Consider When Choosing A DJ Mixer Or Controller?
The decision you make can be impacted by several things, from the music you spin, the environment you are in, and the budget you have.
What Format Of Music Do You Play?
The format of the music collection you intend to use can also play a part in your decision.
Suppose you have an extensive existing vinyl record collection. In that case, it probably doesn’t make sense for you to purchase a DJ controller without the ability to play vinyl records.
On the other hand, If you have an extensive digital collection, getting a mixer without an internal soundcard probably won’t serve you well.
It’s worth keeping in mind an external audio interface can be used with a DJ mixer and vinyl turntable setup. This, again though is an additional cost. This is a consideration for DJs playing vinyl and digital music.
What Type Of DJ Are You?
The type of DJ and style will also impact the decision. A small all-in-one DJ controller probably isn’t the best choice for a Hip Hop turntablist or someone wanting to go that route. Alternatively, an EDM DJ doesn’t have much use for a hardcore turntablist setup.
What Is Your Budget?
Another major factor is your current budget and the length of time you intend to keep and use the equipment. DJ gear isn’t cheap, and although you can get going for a couple of hundred bucks, potentially you can spend thousands!
What kind of DJ are you or do you want to be? What format is your current music collection in? What is your budget? The answers to these questions will guide you to a good setup to meet your needs.
Who Should Use A DJ Mixer?
Hopefully, you’ve started to get a clear idea of what direction to take.
Here are some additional details that should help you decide which options better suit your needs.
Use a Mixer If:
- You want to build a classic DJ setup
- You have an existing vinyl record music collection
- You want to heavily pursue turntablism
- You want to develop and practice high impact DJ and scratch routines
- You already have turntables
- You aren’t comfortable with computers and just want to DJ
- You want that authentic DJ feel
Click here for our Best DJ Mixer guide.
Who Should Use A DJ Controller?
- You want to lean and are heavily into electronic DJing
- You have an extensive digital music collection you want to spin
- You aren’t really concerned with scratching or DJ tricks and routines
- You want to tap into the hot cue points, effects, and other modern aspects of a DJ controller
- You have a minimal budget and want to begin DJing now
Click here for our Best DJ Controller guide.
What Does a DJ Mixer Do?
A mixer is the central control unit in a DJ setup. In a basic setup, two audio sources run into the mixer. The volume of the two audio sources can be adjusted independently. Both of the audio sources can play and be heard simultaneously. This is, in essence, the fundamental piece of mixing.
Do I Need a DJ Controller and A Mixer?
No, DJ controllers are all-in-one units and contain disc wheels that you control the audio with. The disc wheels emulate real-world vinyl turntables. These units also have a mixer built into them and a few other controls.
Can I Scratch with A DJ Controller?
Yes, you can scratch with a DJ controller. Some DJs prefer the feel of traditional vinyl records, though. Lower-end DJ controllers are functionally capable of scratching, and it’s possible to create some good sounds.
Does a DJ Controller Cost More than A Mixer?
There is some very cheap DJ controller entry-level packages. Some of them are priced under a hundred dollars.
Technically you can buy an entry-level mixer for the same cost. The issue with getting a mixer is that you’ll still need to purchase turntables or CDJs.
Can I Mix with A DJ Controller?
Yes, you can mix with a DJ controller. Mixing is what they were made to do. DJ controllers are pretty easy to mix on compared to a classic vinyl record setup. This is something to consider when buying your gear.
Does a DJ Mixer Play Vinyl Records?
No, a DJ mixer doesn’t play records on its own. Turntables are connected to the mixer to control the audio. The turntables then play the records, and the mixer manipulates their sounds.
Can a DJ Controller Play MP3?
Yes, DJ controllers can play MP3s, WAV, and many other types of digital audio files. The types of files you can play might vary a bit depending on the controller you buy and the software you use with it.
Want to see another comparison? Click here to check out CDJs vs Turntables