Being a DJ for over 25 years, I have seen the evolution of music. I was around when Hip-Hop started to get going. The birth of the New Jack Swing era. I have seen dance music evolve. Freestyle with it’s latin-infused beats was popular in the 1980’s. I have seen the evolution of house music, with beginnings in the Chicago house party scene. Now, electronic music dominates nightclubs, with the top EDM DJ’s and producers making millions of dollars.
I have also seen the evolution of the equipment. Techniques 1200’s were the industry standard for many years. When CD’s became mainstream, different types of CD players started to emerge. The Pioneer CDJ series became the industry standard for most nightclubs and mobile DJ’s everywhere.
Now the controller has gained steam. Technology has advanced enough where you can pack good sound and advanced features in a device where you can essentially carry it around in a small carry case, or in some instances, a backpack. Another perk of having an all in one DJ solution: Price.
This is perfect for the aspiring DJ, or someone who who just need something to use in the garbage or bedroom. There are several choices out there, so this article will lay out the best DJ controllers for beginners.
We will look at the different features, hardware connections, software compatibility, and most importantly, price.
The title of this article is best cheap DJ controller, so we will review devices that are $250 or less. I am using Amazon.com for the pricing, because overall, they seem to be the most competitive.
I feel $250 is not that much when you consider you will probably use the controller quite a bit. We will list these in alphabetical order.
The best DJ controllers for beginners:
Behringer is a trusted provider of audio hardware. They are most known for mixing consoles, amplifiers, and microphones. Because of this, I would tend to trust other types of audio products that they produce. The CMD Studio 4a is a 4 channel controller. Not sure what the term “4-channel” means? It means that you can play four different audio streams. In other words, you have four audio decks at your disposal. This is good if you want to play samples to audio cuts over the current track. The controller only has two volume level controllers; to use four channels, you will need to use the A-B-C-D buttons above the tempo slider. This is pretty standard for DJ controllers.
Studio 4a gives you eight hot cues. These are the buttons below the jog wheels that allow you to set eight cue points for each track. It has four individual effects buttons at the top of the controller. It has beat sync (Be careful with this, as you will need to learn to beat mix by listening, not using technology as a crutch.) Loop functionality is standard.
The hardware connections on the back of the unit has two sets of RCA outputs. You can use one to plug in speakers or a mixing board, and use the other set to connect a recording device.
Studio 4a comes with it’s own Deckadance 2 LE software to get you going, but the controller is also compatible with several of the professional DJ software options, including Serato, Traktor, and Abelton Live.
The Hercules DJ Universal is a 2 channel controller. It has eight pads above the jog wheels which will house your hot cues, effects, samples, and loops. Unlike the CMD Studio 4a where all of the loops, hot cues, and effects are separate, this controller combines them into one set of pads. I am not crazy about the fact that it does not have a tempo slider, so you will rely on the auto sync button. One unique aspect of the Hercules is that you can play in three different modes:
- Laptop mode – “Normal mode” with laptop plugged into the controller via USB
- Multiscreen mode – Laptop plugged into the controller, but you can also use a smartphone or tablet (Bluetooth connection)with the DJUCED app to enhance your sets.
- Tablet mode – Bluetooth connected with the DJUCED app. You can walk away from the controller and mix while in the crowd.
The hardware connections on the back of the controller are RCA outs, an RCA Aux input to plug in another device, and the mode toggle switch.
This is a good solution for personal use, or if you want to perform at small parties amongst your friends. The ability to use mobile devices in conjunction with the controller can make your show more dynamic when utilized correctly.
The DJControl Instinct P8 is more of an entry level option if you do not want to go with the Universal model. Overall, the unit and the jog wheels are a little smaller. The DJControl Instinct is a 2 channel device with four performance pads for each channel. You have the loop, cue, effects and sample options. The controller runs the DJUCED app, but you cannot run the external devices, such as tablet or mobile phone. Like the Universal DJ Controller, the Instinct does not have a tempo slider, instead it relies on the auto sync button.
Numark has been producing DJ gear for as long as I can remember. This is the first of four Numark mixers we will look at. The Mixtrack Edge is thin….thin as a laptop. As far as portability is concerned, this is a plus if you are just starting out. It will not take up a lot of space. It is a 2 channel controller with sample, sync, hot cue, loop, EQ and effects controls on each channel. The jog wheels are multi functional. Based on the selection, they can adjust the cue/mix level in the headphones, browse your music library, set and bend the pitch of the tracks, scroll through the loaded track to find a certain spot, and you can scratch in scratch mode.
The controller comes with Serato DJ Intro and Virtual DJ LE. You can upgrade to the full Serato DJ version to get all of the features. If you are just starting out, Serato DJ Intro and Virtual DJ will do just fine. You will use the included RCA to 1/8th in cable to hook up your speakers or mixing board.
This is a great option for bedroom DJs and pros who want to travel light.
As far as initial looks are concerned, the Mixtrack 3 has the layout of the professional controllers, but at a reasonable price. It is a 2 channel controller. The jog wheels are very responsive, and you have eight performance pads for each channel. The pads control the manual and auto loop, the sampler and the hot cues. Your effects buttons reside at the top of the board. Also at the top, you will find a touch strip. One function of this is to scroll through the track to find a certain point.
The Mixtrack 3 has dedicated cue gain, and cue mix knobs. Each channel also has a filter knob, so you can apply low pass and high pass filters to your sets. It also has a sync button, but even more exciting are the tempo sliders to control your mix.
Virtual DJ LE is the software that is included with the controller.
This is an excellent device for the up and coming DJ that is not quite ready to play out in public. The professional layout and the tight jog wheels will allow you to practice on a nice, but inexpensive controller. Works with both Mac and PC.
The Party Mix is a compact controller. It has several of the same features as the Mixtrack 3, but in a smaller form factor. You have the smaller jog wheels, four performance pads that control hot cues, samples and loops. You have the auto sync button and the pitch sliders. The Party Mix also has the cue mix and cue gain knobs. It also comes standard with Virtual DJ LE.
This controller has the RCA out connectors, so you can hook up external speakers. One unique feature of the Party Mix is the built in light show. There is a switch on the back that controls the different lighting modes. You can select from color controlled, beat controlled, fixed-timing random, all on or you can just turn it off if you do not want any ambience. Works with Mac and PC.
If you are just starting out and want to perform at small parties, this is an excellent choice. You will find that the lighting will add to the performance.
If you REALLY want to be portable, then the Numark DJ 2 Go is the one for you. It is ultra thin, and it has everything you need to rock the party! It is actually positioned as a backup plan in the event that your main controller is not working. This is a good idea, because if you work as a DJ long enough, you will experience a night or two where your equipment will fail. Some DJ’s use iPods as a backup, but that is if your computer crashes. What about the controller? If that stops working during a gig, you will be stuck without a backup. The DJ 2 Go will easily fit in a backpack.
Virtual DJ is included and there is no reason why this cannot be your main controller, especially if you are short on space. For those of you just starting out, this is a great option if you just want to work on your beat mixing skills. Like the Mixtrack 3, it does not have audio out connectors, so you will have to run audio from the laptop.
We will finish up this guide for the best cheap DJ controller, with the Pioneer portion of the program. The first one is the DDJ-SB2. This is one of the entry level boards of the popular DDJ series. It features larger jog wheels. They are pretty tight and responsive, giving you more control of the track. If you are into scratching the Pioneer offerings will be your best bet. There are eight performance pads. The top four are for your hot cues, auto loops, manual loops and sampler. You get four pads for each function. Just tap which one you want, and you are good to go. The bottom pads give you start/stop, cue, sync, and shift.
You have a filter for each channel and your effects are laid out at the top of the controller. It has the tempo slider and also a key lock button. This is handy because normally when you are sliding tempo, the key will change. With the key lock active, it will lock in the key of the song no matter where the slider ends up. No more chipmunk vocals when you are speeding up the track six extra BPM.
On the side you have your headphone jack, your mic input and mic level knob.
It has RCA audio out so you can hook up your speakers or mixing board. It comes with Serato DJ Intro, but you can upgrade to the full version of Serato DJ, or Rekordbox. Once you gain some experience, you will want to get the upgrade. I use them both, and they each have their own features. If I know I will be playing music videos, I will use Serato, but if I am spinning audio only, I usually go with Rekordbox. You may just want to stick with one, as keeping two libraries takes some work.
Works with both Mac and PC
The DDJ-RB controller is similar to the DDJ-SB2, but this is a Rekordbox controller. Rekordbox is Pioneer’s performance software. It has it’s own play/pause and cue buttons positioned like the CDJ series digital turntables. It also has dedicated manual looping buttons. Other than that, the two controllers are similar. The one you select will be based on the software you like to use. The DDJ-SB2 can support both, so if I had to choose, I would select the SB2.
Works with both Mac and PC
The DDJWEGO2W is a portable controller that has a small form factor. This is perfect for the first time DJ, as you have the Pioneer feel at an affordable price. This model is being discontinued, as Pioneer already has the WEGO 3 and 4, but those are a little more than $250. If you want a small controller that you can use with an iPad, this is the one. This also works because when you graduate to some of the more professional Pioneer controllers, the learning curve is very small. They all work pretty much the same.
Works with both Mac and PC
So which one do you choose for the best DJ controllers for beginners? It all depends on what you want to do. If you are an aspiring DJ and you want to practice and get some gigs in the near future, go with the Pioneer models. They are a little pricier, but most nightclubs have Pioneer products. You will be able to play anywhere with no issues.
If you want something that is for personal use with the occasional gig, I would go with the Numark Mixtrack 3 or the Behringer CMD. If you are a hobbyist, then any of the other cheap DJ controller options will do just fine.