Category Archives for DJ Equipment

Why You Need Special Equipment for DJing

By definition, DJing is all about manipulating recorded sound. Thus in order to DJ properly, you need to be familiar with the sound equipment DJs use and be able to handle it well.

The special features that the DJs need to do their job separate DJ gear into a category of its own. DJ equipment is very different – in both its features and price – from what you’d encounter in a typical electronics store. In other words, your parents’ record player or a consumer grade CD deck ain’t a good fit for DJing.

This section of DJing Tips deals with the DJ equipment and everything that goes along with it. You’ll learn what pieces of equipment you should buy and how to choose your gear wisely. I’m also explaining in great detail what all those buttons, faders and knobs are for and how to handle them like a pro.

Turntables, DJ mixer, headphones and cartridges

DJ Equipment Basics

So, you’re really serious about DJing. In this article, as well as the following ones, I’ll explain what equipment you’ll need and what you’ll need to pay attention to when choosing it. I’d like to note from the outset that I want these articles to stay relevant for at least a couple of years, so you won’t find any specific products mentioned too often – except for those that have been around for years and will be bought and used well into the future.

Depending on the type of media you’ve chosen to start with, you’ll need the following.

CD decks, mixer and headphones

Equipment for CD DJing:

  1. CD players x 2
  2. Mixer x 1
  3. Headphones x 1

Turntables, DJ mixer, headphones and cartridges

Equipment for vinyl DJing:

  1. Turntables x 2
  2. Slipmats x 2
  3. Cartridges with needles x 2
  4. Mixer x 1
  5. Headphones x 1

Folks who are new to DJing often ask me: Why does a DJ need two players, be it CD players or vinyl turntables? In short, two decks are needed to make smooth transitions from one song to another without any gaps or changes in the tempo. This process is called “mixing” and is explained in greater detail here.

The necessity of mixing defines one of the key features of a DJ deck. This feature is the pitch control, which is a slider that allows you to change the tempo of a track. In addition to that, professional CD players also differ from consumer grade ones in that they offer the so-called “instant start,” precise search and the ability to save cue points in memory.

If you’ve chosen the good old vinyl, you’ll need to get some slipmats to go along with your decks. A slipmat is a soft felt mat that’s placed between the turntable’s platter and the record. The purpose of the slipmat is to reduce the friction between the record and the platter, which gives you the ability to freely manhandle the former.

In addition to the slipmats, you’ll also have to buy cartridges and needles for your turntables. A cartridge does the actual job of transforming record grooves into sound signal. It’s mounted on a headshell which is in turn attached to the deck’s tone arm. By the way, sometimes cartridges and/or slipmats will come with a turntable, but that’s not always the case. Find out in advance what extras your turntable of choice comes with.

The mixer allows the DJ to mix and otherwise transform the sound coming from the decks. For example, it allows you to send the output from a given turntable (or both of them) to the dancefloor, or listen to one track while the folks on the dancefloor hear another. So whereas the decks serve as the sound source, the mixer is what the DJ routes this sound with.

A DJ needs headphones to preview and prepare a track while something else is playing on the dancefloor. Usually this track is a tune on the other deck that’s going to be played next. DJ headphones are distinct from regular ones in that they offer better ergonomics, sound quality and sound isolation. The latter is particularly important in the club environment.

Note that I haven’t included amplifier and speakers in the equipment lists above. There are reasons to that. First, you can hook up your mixer to your home stereo while you’re learning. Second, you can totally learn how to DJ without using external speakers. For example, I learned DJing while using headphones only. Thus it’s better to save on the amplifier and the speakers and buy better decks and a mixer instead.

The Vestax PDX-3000Mix vinyl turntable

How to Choose DJ Turntables

With the advent of digital technology, vinyl is slowly but surely losing its position as the DJ’s medium of choice. But if you still like it old-school and are willing to invest your hard-earned money in a pair of vinyl turntables, read on.

Legend Forever: The Technics SL-1200MK2

Technics SL-1200MK2

The legendary Technics SL-1200MK2 deck

The history of professional DJ turntables began in 1978, when a Japanese company called Matsushita (now Panasonic) released the MK2 version of its Technics SL-1200 record player. The original SL-1200, which was released six years earlier, was marketed as a hi-fi consumer turntable and had a rotary pitch control.

Today, more than 30 years after its release, the Technics SL-1200MK2 and its later versions (MK5, MK5G etc.) remain the industry standard found in most clubs. The secret is in the turntable’s stellar build quality and unmatched durability: a lot of 1200s produced in 1970s are still in use. So even though Panasonic was forced to finally discontinue the model in 2010 – after 32 years of  production! – the “wheels of steel” will probably be around for as long as vinyl records are made.

The moral of the story is simple: If you want the best of the best, go for a pair of 1200s. Be prepared for some sticker shock, though. After the Technics “analog turntables” (that’s how they call them now, sigh) were discontinued, their selling price doubled overnight, so a new pair can cost you as much as $2,000. Yikes!

What to Look for in a DJ Turntable

If you can’t afford the Technics – and frankly, if you’re only starting out, shelling out $2,000 is too much of a leap of faith anyway – no problem. There are other decks out there, many of them quite decent even though their build quality and durability aren’t as legendary as those of the SL-1200MK2’s. But before you start looking into those cheaper alternatives, you need to get familiar with some key features of a DJ record player.

The first one is the type of drive motor used. In direct-drive turntables, the motor is located under the center of the platter and is connected to it directly. This ensures higher torque and lower wow and flutter (i.e. platter speed fluctuations), both of which are essential for a DJ. The first direct-drive turntable, released in 1969, was the Technics SP-10 – a direct ancestor of the SL-1200.

In belt-drive turntables, the motor is located off-center from the platter and is connected to it with a rubber belt. As a result, belt-drive decks have lower torque and their platter speed fluctuations are greater.

If there’s going to be only one piece of advice that sticks in your mind after reading this article, let it be this: Don’t buy belt-drive turntables! Whatever the manufacturer claims, they are totally unsuitable for DJing. The main reason is that a belt-drive deck can’t maintain a constant speed of platter rotation. And this is extremely important for a DJ because even slightest speed fluctuations will lead to galloping.

The second important feature of a DJ turntable is its torque. Higher torque means that the platter will accelerate to its proper speed faster after you press the Start button, and won’t slow down a lot when you’re holding a record still on the slipmat. The SL-1200MK2’s torque is 1.5 kgf·cm; the decks of your choice should have at least as much.

Apart from the drive motor type and torque, another essential feature of a DJ deck is a pitch control slider. (I tried to make it obvious here but I thought I’d spell it out again just to be safe.) Make sure that you can adjust the slider smoothly and that the turntable is quick to respond to those adjustments.

The last group of features includes all kinds of extras that are nice to have in a turntable but that aren’t as critical. Here are some of them:

  • Digital output (S/PDIF, USB). Means that the turntable is capable of digitizing the sound and sending it to a computer or another device with a digital input.
  • Adjustable pitch range. Allows you to switch the range of the pitch slider – for example, from +/-8% to +/-16% or even +/-100%. Useful mainly for scratch artists.
  • Master tempo. Uses digital signal processing to maintain the track’s original key while allowing you to change the tempo with the pitch slider.
  • Reverse. Makes the platter rotate in the reverse direction. For a non-scratcher, nice to play with a couple of times and then forget about.
  • Adjustable torque, BPM counter, interchangeable tonearm etc.

Vestax: Almost as Good as Technics (or Better)

The Vestax PDX-3000Mix vinyl turntable

Vestax PDX-3000Mix

Vestax turntables are arguably the closest rival to the 1200s. They haven’t been around for as long as the “wheels of steel,” but they’ve already gained respect among DJs for their build quality and features.

The PDX range of Vestax decks appeals to scratchers because of the special tonearm technology that drastically reduces skipping, and other niceties such as reverse, adjustable break/startup time and adjustable pitch range of up to +/-50% or more. The decks are cheaper, too ($500 to $800 a pop), although still hardly a bargain.

All in all, Vestax PDXs are fine turntables, so go ahead and pick up a pair if you prefer the features and lower price to the legendary durability and iconic status of the 1200s. Oh, and Vestax decks are still in production, which may be important down the road in terms of being able to get your turntables serviced.

Budget Turntables: Stanton, Numark, Gemini

The Stanton STR8.150 DJ turntable

Stanton STR8.150

You won’t find them in clubs, but Numark, Stanton and Gemini decks let you get into vinyl DJing without breaking a bank. For just $300, you can get an OK direct-drive turntable with enough torque and features to learn on, and $400-$500 will buy you a top-of-the-line deck like Numark TTX-USB or Stanton STR8.150.

The problem with the budget decks is that they are a far cry from the sturdy and time-tested Technics, are made from cheaper materials and generally tend to suffer from random problems popping up here and there. Also, they are not as easy to sell once you get better or aren’t interested anymore. So if your budget is $400 per deck or more, you may want to go for used 1200s instead.

Don’t get me wrong: Gemini, Numark or Stanton turntables are more than enough to learn the basics of vinyl DJing. My very first setup included a pair of Numark Pro TT-2s, which were decent clones of Technics but came with a couple of flaws to get used to: random platter accelerations on certain pitch positions and cheap casing. Well, you get what you pay for. If cash is tight, budget decks may be the way to go.

The Pioneer CDJ-2000 CD player

How to Choose DJ CD Players

Pioneer CDJ-1000 and CDJ-2000

The Pioneer CDJ-2000 CD player

Pioneer CDJ-2000, the ultimate DJ deck

In 2001, Pioneer rocked the DJ world by releasing the CDJ-1000, the first professional CD deck to accurately emulate a vinyl turntable thanks to its giant touch-sensitive jog wheel. The company’s CD players had enjoyed strong reputation in clubs before, but it was the CDJ-1000 that was ultimately destined to become the industry standard.

After two updates (MK2 and MK3), Pioneer retired the CDJ-1000 in 2009 in favor of the new CDJ-2000 deck. The CDJ-2000 builds upon the predecessor’s strong foundation while attempting to address most modern DJs’ needs. Among the new features there’s USB memory stick support, needle drop simulation via a touch-sensitive strip below the display and native support in Traktor and Serato.

The CDJ-2000 is well-positioned to become the next standard owing to the Pioneer quality and the mind-blowing features. However, it’s also the most expensive digital turntable on the market: A pair of new CDJ-2000s can easily cost you well above $3,000, which is insane if you’re only starting out. Not to worry, though – you don’t need the most advanced players on earth to mix CDs and can save many hundreds of dollars by going for less feature-packed decks. Which ones? Read on.

Other CD Players by Pioneer

The Pioneer CDJ-200 CD deck

Value for money: Pioneer CDJ-200

At the time of this writing, the latest Pioneer lineup includes three CD players in addition to the CDJ-2000. All of them support USB memory sticks and the Rekordbox software by Pioneer that allows you to prepare and manage your digital tracks. Unlike the CDJ-2000, CDJ-900 doesn’t play DVD and SD card formats, has a smaller display and lacks the needle search pad. The CDJ-850’s display is yet smaller than CDJ-900’s, and it doesn’t support the Pro DJ Link function which allows two decks to play music from the same USB stick. CDJ-350 is the most basic of them all as it lacks the Pioneer’s trademark full-size jog wheel.

If you are still reluctant to spend at least $1400 on a pair of Pioneer decks (that’s how much two CDJ-350s would cost), you have two options. First, you can buy used players; you can’t really go wrong with the CDJs if you thoroughly inspect them. Second, you can step down even further and go for a really basic deck such as Pioneer CDJ-200. Sure, it doesn’t have a lot of bells and whistles present in newer models, but it will get the job done and will be easy to sell once you grow out of it. Combine these two approaches and you can get a pair of Pioneer decks for as little as $500!

Denon: Great Decks for Less

The Denon DN-S1200 digital deck

Denon DN-S1200

Denon CD players have been well respected in the DJ community since the early rackmount player days. The general consensus is that Denon offers a bigger bang for the buck than Pioneer in terms of the features, and their newer decks (with the latest firmware updates applied) are almost as reliable. There’s only one catch: CDJ is still the industry standard so if you’re planning to throw parties with other DJs playing on your decks, you’d better get Pioneer.

The trademark feature of Denon’s flagship player, DN-S3700, is its rotating platter that’s as close to true vinyl emulation as you can get. The stock plastic disc is too light, however, so it still feels different from the real thing. Both DN-S3700 and DN-S1200, the company’s cheaper model, have USB device support and MIDI interface that allows you to use the decks with Traktor or Virtual DJ. In addition to that, DN-S3700’s “hybrid MIDI mode” lets you control Serato and other timecode-based DVS systems.

Overall, both Pioneer and Denon have their followers, so if you’re afraid you’ll be overpaying for the Pioneer brand name and the alleged rock-solid reliability, you might as well give a pair of Denons a try.

Everything Else

This category includes cheaper CD players by the already mentioned Stanton, Numark and Gemini. To quote one DJ, “Though the Numark are certain to be loaded with features, it is just gimmicks to pull newbies in.” These guys’ top-of-the-range decks may be good value for money for a bedroom DJ, but I’d still get a pair of used Pioneers instead, thank you. Trust me, you won’t need half of those features, but you’ll appreciate the longevity and the resell value of the Pioneers. You decide.

The Pioneer DJM-800 DJ mixer

How to Choose a DJ Mixer

After reading my guides to choosing vinyl turntables and CD players, you probably expect that I’ll begin this article with a brief review of the club standard mixer. Well, I’ll have to disappoint you, and not because there’s no such standard (there is). The thing is, DJ equipment is pretty expensive – like you haven’t noticed that already! – and if you want to save, it’s better to save on the mixer.

The reason is simple: cheap, crappy decks can make learning DJing a nightmare and may even make you want to quit altogether. On the other hand, an entry level mixer (provided it has the minimum required features) will be OK for mastering the basics and should serve you well for the 6-12 months before you grow out of it. And such first mixer can cost you much, much less than the club standard one: $180 (American Audio Q-D5 MKII) vs. $1,700.

Mixer Features

In order to take an educated approach to choosing a DJ mixer, you need to first learn about the important features to consider. Here they are:

The Pioneer DJM-800 DJ mixer

Pioneer DJM-800, the formidable club standard

Number of channels. Determines how many sound sources you can mix. The required minimum is two channels, one for each of your decks. (A 1-channel mixer is a nonsense anyway, though.)

Number of inputs. A mixer may have two channels but four inputs. How is that possible? Simple: Each channel has a switch that tells it which of the channel’s two inputs to grab the signal from. Thus even with a 2-channel mixer, you can have a CD deck and a turntable on either side of the mixer and switch between those as needed. (But you still won’t be able to mix more than two decks at once.)

Mic input lets you, duh, hook up a microphone to the mixer. Fun, but not essential for learning how to DJ.

Channel EQs. A group of knobs that let you adjust the level of the channel’s frequency bands. For example, a three-band EQ has three knobs and lets you adjust the highs, mids and lows. Make sure your mixer has separate three-band EQs for each channel for smooth mixing.

Level meters. A level meter is that LED strip that bounces back and forth to the track’s beat and shows you its volume. A level meter for the mixer’s main output is a must; separate meters for each of the channels is better.

Gain controls are used for setting the overall level of the mixer’s channels. You want to have separate Gain knobs for each of the channels.

Mixer outputs. Typical mixer outputs include master output, recording output, monitor output and a headphone jack. The bare minimum – Master Out and the headphone jack – are present in all mixers.

BPM counters, FX, sampler. A BPM counter automatically detects the tempo of the track playing through a given channel, which is occasionally helpful for beatmatching. Mid- and high-range mixers also let you transform the sound with a number of effects and often have a built-in sampler. All of these features are not essential for a beginner DJ.

A Few Models to Consider

The American Audio Q-D5 MKII mixer

American Audio Q-D5 MKII

Now that you know what the important mixer features are, you are much more likely to make an informed decision when shopping for one. To give you an example of what to expect for your money, let’s go over a few models in different price ranges.

Good news: a decent DJ mixer that meets all the minimum requirements listed above can be purchased for less than $200. One model to consider is American Audio Q-D5 MKII – an entry level scratch mixer that boasts an optical crossfader and XLR outputs. It’s also said to be pretty durable. For an alternative to the Q-D5, take a look at two-channel Vestax mixers from the VMC series such as the VMC-002XLu.

A little bit higher up ($300-$500) are entry-level mixers from Allen & Heath (Xone:22 and Xone:02), Ecler Nuo 2.0 and Vestax mixers from the PMC range. More money will buy you a more durable, better sounding device of up to 4 channels with quality faders, per-channel level meters and some other goodies.

The Ecler Nuo 2.0 professional mixer

Ecler Nuo 2.0

If you have more than $600 to spend on a mixer, take a look at Rane, Allen & Heath, Urei, Ecler and Pioneer. Those higher-end mixers are built from quality components, often have an FX unit, a built-in sampler and offer three or more channels for you to play with. Rane mixers are great for scratchers, Pioneer offers a ton of features combined with their trademark reliability (avoid the old DJM-600 and the overpriced DJM-400 though), and Allen & Heath, Urei and Ecler are generally said to be the better sounding ones.

You get what you pay for, and boy can you pay a lot: one of the most expensive mixers out there, Pioneer DJM-2000, will cost you the monstrous $2,500. But let me go back to my earlier point here: A beginner DJ can safely opt in for a much cheaper solution.

The Sennheiser HD 25-1 II professional headphones

Choosing Headphones, Needles & Slipmats

Headphones

Just like any other piece of DJ equipment, DJ headphones need to meet certain requirements that have to do with how and where they are typically used. By the way, DJs are expected to bring their own headphones with them to a club, so keep in mind that your first pair of “cans” may have to graduate from the bedroom together with yourself.

Here are the main points to consider when shopping for a pair of DJ headphones:

sennheiser_hd251ii.jpg

The Sennheiser HD 25-1 II headphones

  • Isolation. In a loud environment with bass booming all around, it’s extremely important that your headphones let you listen precisely to what you are doing. You want your “cans” to cut out all that background noise as efficiently as possible. This explains why any pair of half-decent DJ headphones is closed-back type, although that alone doesn’t guarantee good isolation.
  • Comfort. You’ll be wearing your headphones for hours, so make sure they’re light and don’t press on your head too much. Also, go for a thick, long cord that doesn’t constrain your movements behind the decks.
  • Ruggedness. DJ booth environment may be harsh. Your cans will get twisted, dropped, kicked and stepped on (mostly by yourself). It’s better if they don’t break instantly, so ruggedness pays.
  • Convenience. Two-ear and one-ear monitoring, shoulder-ear vs. one-earcup-on-the-side – DJs use their ‘phones in a multitude of ways. That’s when you begin to appreciate swivel/rotating cups and a shoulder pad.
  • Frequency response and sound quality. The hearing range of a (young) human ear is 20 to 20,000 Hz. The wider your “cans’” frequency range, the better, although manufacturers’ claims such as “5 Hz to 30,000 Hz frequency response” are usually an overstatement. Sound quality is more subjective and needs to be assessed by actually listening to the particular pair.
The Sony MDR-7506 pro headphones

Sony MDR-7506

Now that we’ve covered the basics, let’s take a look at some worthwhile models of DJ headphones out there. If you’re on an ultra-low budget, take a look at the Sennheiser HD 205, which is arguably the best pair of ‘phones you can find for under $50. For the money, you get the Sennheiser sound quality, closed-back cups and the ability to slide one of the earpieces left or right.

For up to $100 to spend on the headphones, consider getting the Sony MDR-7506 (MDR-V6) or the Sennheiser HD 280 Pro. Choosing between the two is a matter of personal preference. There are folks who say that the HD 280s have flatter response – not necessarily an advantage for a DJ – and that the 7506s’ highs are brighter. Make sure to check how both models sound to you.

Still higher up are the widely used Sony MDR-V700 followed by the Technics RP-DH1200 and the Pioneer HDJ-1000. All three are pretty comfortable and sound great; as far as the differences go, the MDR-V700s are said to break easily, the 1200s are rugged but almost too heavy, and the HDJ-1000s have massive bass but suffer from the weak swivel.

The Technics RP-DH1200 DJ headphones

The Technics RP-DH1200 cans

Finally, if money is no object, take a look at the Sennheiser HD 25-1 II (pictured above) and the Pioneer HDJ-2000. The Sennheisers may not look like much, but they are light and ultra-comfortable, sound fantastic and provide great isolation. The HD 25s’ response is very flat, whereas the HDJ-2000s have stronger bass and accented highs, which makes them sound more “DJ-like.” Overall, both models are awesome, so choose the one that suits you best.

The final decision is up to you but here’s a piece of obvious advice: Make sure you listen to a few different models of DJ headphones before purchasing a pair. Pay attention to the sound quality, isolation, comfortability and all the other points mentioned above. Remember that no overview will replace your personal experience with a given pair of cans.

Cartridges and Needles

If you decided to go for a pair of vinyl turntables for your setup, you’ll also need to buy cartridges and needles for them. Sometimes a turntable will come with a basic cartridge, but that’s more of an exception than the rule.

The Stanton 500.V3 turntable cartridge

The Stanton 500.V3 cartridge with a needle

A cartridge is a device that holds the needle (also known as the stylus) and transforms its mechanical vibrations into electric signals. Pictured to the left is the Stanton 500.V3 cartridge; the stylus is the white part with the needle tip that goes into the black “cart”. The cartridge is mounted with a pair of screws on the headshell (it comes with the turntable) and connected to it with four colored wires. There are also the cool-looking “integrated” type cartridges that don’t use a headshell and are attached to the tonearm directly.

Carts normally come with a pre-installed stylus. After it wears out, you simply replace  it with a new matching one without having to buy a new cartridge.

Here are some points to consider when choosing the cartridges for your vinyl decks:

Ortofon Concorde Pro

The integrated-type Ortofon Concorde Pro cart that goes directly into the tonearm

  • Headshell-mounted vs. “integrated” type cartridge. Headshell-mounted carts are normally cheaper. On the other hand, the all-in-one carts look really awesome. Besides, with the “integrated” type, you don’t need to worry about mounting the cart on the headshell correctly and attaching those tiny wires.
  • Stylus shape. Spherical stylii (or styluses?) are the cheapest to produce and therefore the most common. Elliptical shaped stylii are more expensive but they also sound better. On the other hand, an elliptical stylus will wear out your records faster if you do extensive scratching or back-cueing.
  • Frequency response. The wider your cart’s frequency response range, the more accurate it is in turning those record grooves into sound and the better the overall sound quality.
  • Tracking. This one is a subjective characteristic that tells you how likely the cartridge is to skip when you’re manhandling the record. Good tracking is pivotal if you’re planning to do any scratching.

A quick note for users of DVS such as Torq or Serato: You don’t need to buy some special cartridges for your timecoded vinyl. Any regular phono cartridge will do the job just fine. Also, in the DVS scenario, the cartridge’s sound quality becomes less of a concern because the sound comes from your laptop’s hard drive anyway. On the other hand, DVS users tend to scratch and back-cue more (timecoded vinyl is cheap and replaceable), and that makes good tracking even more important.

Now on to some popular models. If you’re just starting out, take a look at the Stanton 500.V3, the latest version of the classic 500 AL cartridge. This headshell-mounted cart has a spherical stylus and provides good sound quality for the price ($30), although it falls a bit short in the higher frequency range with its 17,000 Hz limit.

The Shure M44-7 DJ cartridge

The Shure M44-7 cartridge mounted on a headshell

About twice as expensive are the headshell-mounted cartridges of the Shure M44 series. The virtually unskippable M44-7 has long been the scratchers’ favorite, and now it’s found its way into a lot of DVS setups. However, I wouldn’t use the M44-7 to listen to my record collection because of the excessive emphasis it puts on the lows and highs. The M44-G doesn’t track just as well as the M44-7 but it sounds better, which makes it more suitable for mixing. Both carts’ needles are of the spherical type.

Still higher up are the all-in-one Ortofon cartridges (see the Ortofon Concorde Pro above) that come in a lot of variations aimed at various DJing styles. While the Shure M44-7 is still your best bet for scratching, do take a look at Ortofon carts if you’re a mixing DJ who’s after the best sound quality. Be prepared to pay for it, though, because an Ortofon cart may easily cost you upwards of $100.

A few words to wrap it up: My first pair of cartridges were the Stanton 500 AL IIs (a version of the 500 AL), and I haven’t had any problems with them. Sure, pricier carts provide better sound quality, but for a beginner DJ, the difference doesn’t justify paying $50-150 more for a pair. Apart from the mixer, the carts are something you can safely save on in your first setup.

Slipmats

Technics slipmats

A pair of classic Technics slipmats

So, you got your turntables, cartridges and needles, are you all set now? Not really. You still need slipmats – circular felt mats about 1/8” thick that sit between the record and the platter. A slipmat lets the platter rotate underneath while you’re holding the record with your hand; let go of the record and it starts right away.

First, don’t confuse slipmats with the rubber mats that came with your decks. Those stop the record from slipping and dampen vibrations. They are meant for listening to that Tchaikovsky concerto on your hi-fi system, but not for DJing. Put them away.

Second, some slipmats come with additional mats made of shiny paper. If you’re a scratcher, you put those between the platter and the slipmat to further reduce friction. Otherwise, you don’t need them.

There’s a huge variety of slipmats out there. My advice is to go for trusted brands such as Technics or Butter Rugs; cheaper slipmats with excessive printing may reduce slipping and even damage your records. Expect a pair of decent slipmats to cost you around $15-30.

Professional turntable controls

DJ Turntable Controls

As you’ll soon see, a vinyl turntable is a fairly complex piece of equipment. There are a lot of intricate details to picking up sound from analog media such as a vinyl record, which makes numerous controls necessary. Fortunately, you as a DJ will only have to deal with a few of them.

Below are listed the controls of a professional DJ record player, as exemplified by the legendary Technics SL-1210MK5 turntable.

turntable_controls.jpg

  1. The platter: The rotating platform where the record is placed.
  2. Strobe dots: Dots on the side of the platter that are supposed to “freeze” on certain pitch positions (-3.3%, 0%, 3.3%, +6%). These dots allow you to check how precisely the deck is spinning.
  3. Spindle: When on the platter, the record’s hole is pierced by the spindle. The spindle is not stationary but rotates along with the platter.
  4. 45 RPM adaptor: Fits over the spindle for the 7-inch records that have a big hole.
  5. Strobe light: Flashing light that illuminates the strobe dots.
  6. Power switch: Rotating on/off switch for the deck. Sits on top of the strobe.
  7. Start/Stop button: Pressing this button starts the platter. Pressing it again stops it.
  8. 33/45 RPM button: Allows for switching the speed of the platter’s rotation between 33 RPM and 45 RPM (rotations per minute).
  9. Pitch control: A vital part of a professional DJ deck. Allows for precisely setting the speed of the platter’s rotation within a +/-8% range (on some decks, the range is wider). Moving the pitch control downward – in the direction of the rotation – speeds the record up. Moving the pitch upward slows it down. The scale to the left of the slider allows you to track the percentage value of the speed change.
  10. Target light button: Pressing this button makes the target light pop up.
  11. Target light: Shines the light along the grooves of the record, allowing you to see where the needle is. (This is especially helpful in low-light conditions such as a DJ booth.) You can hide the target light by pressing it.
  12. Tone arm: Another important part of a deck. It’s a hollow metal tube to which the headshell is attached on one end and the counterweight on another.
  13. Counterweight: Allows you to adjust the stylus pressure on the record by counterbalancing its weight.
  14. Stylus pressure ring: If setup properly, shows the needle pressure in grams.
  15. Tone arm height adjustment ring: Allows you to set the height of the tone arm. The marks on the side indicate the current height in millimeters.
  16. Tone arm height adjustment lock: Allows you to lock the height of the tone arm after adjusting it with the ring.
  17. Anti-skating control: Sets the anti-skating force. The marks indicate the amount of force in grams.
  18. Cueing lever: Once the needle is set over the right place on the record, the cuing lever allows you to slowly lower the tone arm, and then pick it up. DJs typically keep the lever lowered all the time and place/pick up the needle by hand.
  19. Tone arm lock: Locks the arm on the tone arm rest, which is useful when transporting the turntable.
  20. Locking nut: Locks the headshell in the tone arm.
  21. Headshell: The cartridge is mounted on the headshell, which is in turn attached to the tone arm. The headshell also has a handle that the DJ holds when placing or picking up the needle.
  22. Pitch reset button: Forces the pitch to zero. In the SL-1210MK5, it’s an alternative to the famous (and annoying) click in the 0% pitch position that was characteristic of the SL-1200MK2.
  23. Headshell stand: This is where you can stick a spare headshell for your deck.
  24. Cartridge (not shown on photo): Converts the needle’s vibrations into electrical signal. The cartridge is mounted on the headshell with screws. Sometimes, the headshell and the cartridge are combined by the manufacturer into one unit (“integrated” type cart).
  25. Stylus (not shown on photo): A diamond needle that picks up sound. When following a record groove, the needle vibrates. The cartridge transforms these vibrations into electrical signal that represents the sound.

After more than thirty years since the introduction of Technics SL-1200MK2, the key controls of a DJ turntable have barely changed. Of course, today’s decks have a lot more cute features like digital display, forward/reverse buttons, pitch control range switch and so on. Refer to the manual for the details; the controls listed above are the most important ones.

Twin CD player controls

DJ CD Player Controls

Despite the fact that professional CD players already existed back in the 90s, the club standard – Pioneer CDJ-1000 – emerged only after the deck was introduced in 2001. The long absence of such a standard led to different manufacturers taking different approaches to implementing some of the features in their DJ CD decks. Thus in this article, I will only talk about the common denominator, or “CDJ mode,” which is applicable to most modern DJ players. Details on a particular model can be gathered from its manual and hands-on experimentation.

Take a look at the CD players below. The first one is the Denon DN-D4500 twin CD deck, and the second one is the Pioneer CDJ-100. I have deliberately chosen these older players for this article so as not to distract you with the myriad of extra controls available on newer and more advanced models.

Twin CD player controls

So, here goes:

  1. Display: The important pieces of information displayed here include:
    • Current track number
    • Track time (elapsed or remaining)
    • Pitch value
    • Other info such as the track’s BPM, its waveform, etc.
  2. Track search/skip buttons: Allow you to navigate the tracks on a CD.
  3. Search buttons: Allow you to fast-forward or rewind to a desired track position.
  4. Play/pause button: Pressing this button starts the playback. Pressing it again will pause the player and bring it into the “stutter” mode. This mode makes precise frame-by-frame search possible.
  5. Cue button: While in the “stutter” mode, saves the current track position (cue point) in the deck’s memory. Pressing this button during playback takes you back to the previously set cue point and pauses the deck.
  6. Professional CD deck controlsJog wheel: When a track is playing, nudging the jog speeds it up or slows it down a little, which can be used to bring the track in sync with another one. In the “stutter” mode, the jog allows you to move frame by frame (a frame is 1/75th of a second) through the song.
  7. Pitch control: Just like on a vinyl turntable, the pitch control makes it possible to adjust the track’s playback speed. In a lot of today’s decks, the range of the pitch control is switchable and can be set to +/- 6%, +/-8% or even as much as +/- 100%. There’s a scale below the pitch slider so you can keep track of its position. The current pitch value is also shown on the deck’s display.
  8. Pitch bend: Quickly pressing one of these buttons will speed up or slow down the track for a fraction of a moment. This makes it possible for you to bring the track’s beats back in sync with another tune, just like nudging the jog wheel does.
  9. Tray or disc slot: This is where you put in a CD.
  10. Eject button: Pressing this button will eject the CD from the player.
  11. On/off button: Do I really need to explain this one?

As you can see, there are still a few controls I skipped, and there are even more of them on the CDJ-1000 and other advanced decks. However, the controls listed above are the ones that are used most frequently in real life, and so a good understanding of them is more than enough to succeed in spinning CDs.

mixer_controls.jpg

The Mixer Explained

The mixer is the core part of any DJ setup. With a mixer, the DJ mixes and routes the sound coming from the decks, and it’s the mixer that allows them to perform many of those cool DJ tricks. In this article, I’ll tell you about the most important controls found on a DJ mixer as well as the device’s features.

Instead of talking about each mixer control separately, I’ll try to cover the bigger picture. The diagram below shows how the sound signal from the turntables travels through the mixer and what knobs, faders and other controls it encounters on its path. Note that for the sake of simplicity, this diagram doesn’t include the crossfader, the headphone output section, or secondary controls.

mixer_diagram.png

So, the mixer has two channels, CH-1 and CH-2, to whose inputs (1) the players are hooked up. Those may be, for example, vinyl turntables, CD decks, or a laptop. Incidentally, the mixer has several inputs for each channel. Most often, there are two – Phono, for hooking up a vinyl turntable, and Line In, for hooking up a CD player or a computer. Special input switches (2) (see photo below) allow you to choose which one of the channel’s inputs currently feeds it the signal.

The first knob that the signal from the turntable encounters is Gain, also known as Trim (3). This knob sets the sound level of its channel. Gain’s purpose is to allow you to make sure that all signals coming into the mixer are of about the same overall volume. So if the record is too quiet, you boost it with Gain, and vice versa. (For more information on setting the volume level, see this article.)

After the Gain, the signal goes to the EQ (4). Most mixers have a three-band EQ with the knobs for treble (hi), midrange (mid) and bass (low). Each of these knobs allows you to adjust the level of its frequency band. Channel EQs are primarily used for smoother mixing.

After the EQ, the signal is picked up by the channel’s level meter (5), which shows the signal’s volume after the Gain and EQ. Channel meters are useful because they allow you to properly set the level even for those channels that can’t be currently heard on the dancefloor.

The next control the sound signal travels through is the channel upfader (6). The fader acts like a faucet and can entirely cut off the signal (fader closed), let it through at reduced volume (fader in an intermediate position) or let the signal through at full blast (fader open). It’s with the faders that the DJ changes the volume of the channels during the transition from one track to another.

At this point, the independent life of the channel comes to an end. After coming through the fader, its signal is mixed with the other channels’ ones and is sent to the device’s output. Of course, only channels whose faders are not closed can contribute to the mix.

Controls of a DJ mixer

Now let’s talk about the path of the combined signal before it leaves the mixer. First, it’s fed to the Rec Out output (7) to which the recording equipment can be hooked up. Rec Out’s level usually can’t be adjusted. Second, the mix is also fed to the Booth Out output (8), to which you can hook up your monitor speakers. The Booth, or Monitor knob (9) allows you to set the volume for those.

Finally, the mixed signal is fed to the Master Out output (10). This is the output to which the amplifier is hooked up. After amplifying the signal, the amp sends it to the speakers on the dancefloor, which (at last!) turn it into actual sound. The Master knob (11) lets you set the level of Master Out, and the Master Volume meter (12) shows you how loud the signal going to the amp is.

Now that the signal has successfully arrived at the mixer’s output, let’s talk about what was left out of the simplified diagram above. First of all, it’s the crossfader (13). Crossfader is a horizontal slider that lets you do smooth transitions between a pair of channels. When the crossfader is on the far right, only one channel’s signal is contributing to the mix. When the slider is on the far left, the same is true for the other channel. When the crossfader is in the middle, the dancefloor will hear both channels. The contribution of a particular channel to the overall mix is the greater the closer the crossfader is to the corresponding side.

I still haven’t mentioned monitoring the sound through headphones, and it’s too important to be left out. Most mixers have the concept of Cue Mix, also called PFL. Cue Mix makes it possible for you to hear (in your headphones) any channel, even one that’s not currently routed to the dancefloor. With the Cue Mix selection buttons (14), you can choose which channels you want to hear. Most often, a DJ chooses only one channel for the Cue Mix, which is the track they are checking out before bringing it in on the floor.

By the way, some mixers only have a Cue Mix level meter (15) instead of the per-channel ones. Thus in order to set the level of a channel on such a mixer, you can send the channel to the Cue Mix and monitor that meter.

You may think that you only need to have the Cue Mix in your headphones, but that’s not true. Sometimes (especially during transitions between tracks) you need to clearly hear what’s playing on the dancefloor, too. That’s why most mixers have the Cue Mix/Master knob or fader (16). It works similarly to the crossfader and lets you transition between the Cue Mix and the Master Out in your headphones.

Finally, there’s always the Cue knob, aka Headphone (17). As you have guessed, it simply lets you adjust the headphone volume.

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