DJ controllers are microprocessor based which are used to provide easier control of the software than the computer keyboard and touchpad on a laptop, or the touchscreen on tablet computers and smartphones. They do not mix audio signals like DJ mixers; rather, they send signals to a computer to tell the DJ software running on the computer how to mix audio. Many DJ controllers also have a built in sound card with 4 output channels (2 stereo pairs), which allows the DJ to preview music in headphones before playing it on the main output. Most DJ controllers use the standard MIDI or HID protocols to communicate with the computer via USB.
Modern DJ controllers emulate two turntables/CDJs and a DJ mixer. However, DJ controllers are much cheaper than two turntables or CDJs plus a mixer. Unlike turntables, controllers can take advantage of the flexibility of computer software, for example, by allowing the DJ to store multiple cue points with music files. Also, DJ software allows users to remap the components of controllers to perform different functions than the controller manufacturer intended.
Some DJ controllers break from the conventional two jog wheels and a mixer layout and are designed to be easily mapped however the user wants. Some controllers are designed to be used either for live PA performances with software such as Ableton Live or with DJ software. A few DJ controllers, most notably the Novation Dicers, are designed to be used with timecode vinyl.
DJ controllers are usually designed to work with only one or a few DJ software programs endorsed by the manufacturer. Most controllers use the standard MIDI or HID protocols, so other software can usually be made to work with them. However, it may take considerable effort to get a controller to work with software it was not designed for, and some controls may not make sense with other software.
Early examples of DJ controllers include the Hercules DJ Console released by Guillemot Corporation in 2004, which features a 6 channel soundcard with SPDIF and MIDI ports, traditional mixer-style faders, crossfader and EQs, jog wheels and CD DJ style button controls. In 2007, Vestax produced a controller specifically designed for DJing, the VCI-100, that emulated two turntables and a DJ mixer setup and was built with quality components acceptable to DJs. Many manufacturers saw the success of the VCI-100 and started selling their own similar devices. Unlike the original VCI-100, some of those devices had integrated sound cards.
In 2009, Pioneer DJ produced new models of their popular CDJ media players, the CDJ-2000 and CDJ-900, that could also be used as controllers to control DJ software via HID. This way, CDJs can be used to control DJ software without playing a timecode signal into a sound card.
In 2010, Native Instruments released the Traktor Kontrol S4, which used high resolution jog wheels and a proprietary protocol rather than MIDI to achieve better performance of the jog wheels. The Mk2 of the Kontrol S4, released in 2013, uses standard HID signals rather than a proprietary protocol to communicate with the computer.
In 2018, DJ controllers are slowly becoming as powerful as professional media players and mixers, including effects, LCD screens, and touch-sensitive performance pads.
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