Hello and welcome
This article is a guide to explain to a novice DJ how to use a DJ controller,
With multiple buttons, knobs and controls to get your head around, along with learning the art of mixing the two tracks together by using the jog wheels and tempo sticks in sequence.
We aim to talk about what these components are and what they do in order for you to understand what they are and how you may use them in the mix.
Of course once you have an understanding you can then begin to practice on your own set-ups which is the fun part!
Lets Dive In
Table of Contents
How To Use A DJ Controller
Once you receive your controller and unbox the device, the first thing you’ll be doing before using the device is setting it up.
Each controller comes with different connectivity options that vary depending on the device, with some controllers offering more others which enables more set-up options such as a DVS or a hybrid set up.
Connections & Cables
RCA Cables; These cables are among the most common amongst DJ set-ups and are used to connect multiple inputs on mixers and controllers. The cables are usually red and white and plug into the red and white ports located at the back of the controller to the red and white ports on your audio interface.
RCA cables offer both phono and line, the difference between the two is a phono signal is significantly weaker than a line signal. Turntables use phono to output the sound whilst CDJs and audio interface units use line to output the sound. Controllers and mixers that allow external devices to be connected usually offer switchable inputs or separate inputs for both.
XLR Cables; Another extremely common cable is the XLR, used on mixers, controllers, and audio interfaces. It is also used as the master output and it is used to connect a microphone.
TRS (1/4″ & 1/8″ Jacks); The TRS cable is slightly confusing as it comes in different sizes, the one we are going to focus on the most and the most common type found in the DJing world is the 1/4″.
They can be used as an alternative to the XLR cables and are mostly found in club set-ups with high spec equipment such as Pioneer’s Nexus range, however, they are mostly used for connecting your headphones and speakers to your sound system.
USB; The USB cable is vital for a controller to communicate with a computer as the cables carry information to and from.
Controls, Faders, Knobs, Buttons, Screens & Software
Here we aim to talk about each control, button, feature or function in detail in order to help you better understand how a DJ controller works.
The deck section is where you’ll find the controls to manipulate the track position and tempo via the jog wheels and pitch faders respectively. Other components likely to be found in this section are performance pads along with looping & effect controls, although this isn’t a universal rule and can be dependant on the specific controller being used.
This is where the magic happens, the jog wheels give you control over the music’s position. DJ’s can scratch, pause, cue and manipulate sound forward and back using the wheels in order to match the Cued tracks BPM (track in headphones) with the master tracks BPM (the track playing out of the speakers) – This is called beatmatching.
The quality of the jog wheels again depends on the price, brand and the device itself. For example on the DDJ-1000 Pioneer have used mechanical jog wheels inspired by the flagship NXS2 series which require slight pressure to activate, whilst the NS7iii by Numark aimed to emulate the feel of real vinyl turntables.
The pitch faders are used to adjust the speed/tempo of the track, in musical terminology you adjust the BPM (Beats Per Minute) of a track.
The pitch faders are a vital tool when learning to manually beatmatch by ear, by using the pitch faders to speed up or slow down the track whilst simultaneously using the jog wheels to forward or rewind the track in order to match the beats together and create a perfect mix.
Many controllers offer a sync button, using this automatically syncs the BPM’s together. This is a cool feature that is useful, whilst at the same time can be detrimental. For example; if you don’t learn the art of manual beatmatching and in some unfortunate event you’re software stops displaying the relevant track information, you will be left red-faced.
Beatmatching is the art of mixing, this is achieved by having the tracks loaded on to the decks, one will be playing through the speakers, we will call this the master track whilst the other track will be playing through the headphones which we will call the cued track.
The aim is to match the tempo/speed of both tracks together by using the jog wheels and pitch faders whilst listening to both tracks, when the two tracks are in sync they will seamlessly link together and create a perfect blend.
The majority of controllers will feature performance pads located at the bottom of the deck. The pads can be used in many creative ways, they can be used to trigger Hot cues, roll, slicer and a sampler.
The features and functions vary on controllers with some offering more than others. Some higher-end controllers offer extensive customisation within the software for configuring preset loops, slices and samples, whilst some are velocity-sensitive and pressure activated.
Looping is achieved by selecting a section of a track that you want to play over and over again, by using the digital DJ software to set a start point and specifying how long you want the loop to be in beats or bars.
Mastering looping and loop controls is firstly super fun to play around with, secondly mastering this skill will add multiple dimensions to your sound.
You can use loops to assist you in transitions from tracks or if you have a 4 channel mixer you could loop a particular section of a track whilst playing 2 tracks simultaneously. The loop roll is also an effective effect, this is where the loop is halved continuously to create some interesting and cool sounds.
Usually located in the deck section is the FX controls, using effects such as Echo, Reverb, Delays, Filters and more can drastically change and improve the way you DJ.
They can be used during the mix to add a different dimension to the sound, they can be used for seamless transitions between tracks.
Some controllers come with pre-set sounds, some allow you to customise the sounds within the software, whilst some have onboard FX built into the controller itself.
The remaining buttons and controls in the deck section again vary depending on the controller, with some having more features and functions than others. Some of the more common controls consist of;
- Sync Button; This button automatically syncs the tempo and phase of the cued deck with the master deck.
- Cue Button; This is used for setting Cue Points.
- Shift Button; Using this button will access the secondary functions on the controller, I.E a second FX bank.
- Key Lock; This locks the pitch of the track to its original key.
- Play Button; Starts the track.
A DJ mixer is an audio mixing console which allows you to mix and blend audio together by allowing you to control and manipulate multiple audio signals, tweak the sound and output it to one source. A typical DJ mixer consists of the following;
EQ controls are used to control and manipulate the different frequencies on each channel, most modern controllers have trim controls and full 3 band EQs consisting of;
- High Knob; This controls the high frequencies such as hats, shakers and rides.
- Mid Knob; This controls the mid-range frequencies such as vocals and synths.
- Low Knob; This controls the low frequencies like bass and sub-bass.
The high-pass and low-pass filter controls can be used;
- High-Pass; Allows the high frequencies to pass through whilst cutting out the low.
- Low-Pass; Allows the low frequencies to pass through whilst cutting out the highs.
Volume Faders, Levels, Controls and the Crossfader
Other controls in the mixer section consist of the following;
- Volume Controls; There are multiple knobs located on the mixer to control various volume outputs such as the Master, Booth, Mic and Headphone levels.
- VU Meters; The VU meters will show you the volume level, this is usually displayed via green to red bars. When the VU meters show the volume in the red zone, this is an indication to turn the volume down to avoid clipping.
- Volume Faders; The volume faders are usually located at the bottom of the deck, these are used to control the signal level of each channel.
- Crossfader; Usually located at the bottom of the mixer section is the crossfader, this controls which channel/track plays through the master speakers. When positioned centrally it allows both tracks to play through the speakers whilst moving the crossfader left or right will play one track louder than the other dependant on how far across it is positioned. Scratch DJs often use the crossfader in creative ways to create amazing sounds, the Roland 202 comes with preset scratch sounds to get you started!
Entry-level controllers usually come with 2 channel mixers and some professional DJ controllers can come with up to 4 channels, although this isn’t a universal rule. Some controllers come with the capability to enable 4 decks via the DJ software, this is a cool feature but is much harder to control using the software compared to using the controller.
Screens are becoming more common on DJ controllers, especially the more advanced devices on the market.
The screen usually displays important information such as;
- BPM – Beats Per Minute, determining how fast the track is.
- Time Elapsed/Time Remaining – Allows you to see how long is left on the track or how far the track has played through.
- Waveforms – Gives you a visual representation of what is happening in the track, this is one of the most beneficial parts of having a screen.
- FX Options & More dependant on the device.
Having this information at a glance of an eye can be invaluable to a DJ if used in the right way, if you want to find out more about DJ controllers with screens we have a compiled a comprehensive guide to the top-rated DJ controllers with built-in screens.
The software varies with different devices, recently brands such as Pioneer and Denon make their controllers compatible only with their own software such as Rekordbox and Engine. There are ways around this but it can be slightly confusing.
There are multiple DJ platforms available;
Some entry-level controllers only offer a lite version of the software, we recommend upgrading sooner rather than later as there are multiple excellent features and functions missing from lite versions.
Setting up the software is relatively straight forward; After installing the software application on to your laptop, you will enter the key you will receive from the manufacturer, you will then be able to plug in your device begin to load tracks and start your journey into the DJing world.
We know when you first see a controller they can sometimes look intimidating and confusing, we have tried to break down and explain each part in as much detail as we can.
Of course, once you buy your first device and begin DJing we are sure you will pick it up in no time, there’s nothing better than practice!
Related Read: We have compiled a list of what we feel are the top-level DJ controllers on the market with reviews… click to find out more!
We hoped to have helped you get more of an understanding of how controllers work and get you on the journey to becoming a DJ!