There are so many different bits of equipment available to DJs that it can often be difficult to understand what some do. This is why questions like “What is the difference between DJ mixer and DJ controller?” are important questions to answer. Especially as some pieces of equipment can do very similar things.
A DJ mixer takes two or more audio inputs and channels them into one output. Without any audio inputs, a mixer is useless. DJ controllers however often have a mixer and the audio channels built into one unit. This varies depending on the unit and the manufacturer so of course there are more complexities to this question.
Let’s dive in and really explain what is the difference between a DJ mixer and a DJ controller.
A DJ mixer cannot work as a standalone unit. It always needs external units providing audio inputs for it to function. The classic example of this would be two decks routed through a central mixer.
The decks each play audio that is fed into the mixer. The DJ can then adjust things like the EQ and volume via the mixer which then outputs one cohesive sound. This is true of mixers in all situations, without any form of audio input they aren’t able to do anything.
Whether in the studio, a DJ booth or a live concert mixer will always take various forms of audio and allow them to be manipulated and tweaked. The functions that are available on the mixer very much vary depending on the unit and the brand. Some are very basic and include just volume and EQ. While others include many more functions like effects and filters.
Examples of Both Basic Mixers
The use of mixers vary and the reasons you would choose a specific type depends on your ultimate aim.
A scratch DJ, for example, would require a mixer with a good crossfader that is able to withstand lots of abuse. This is because they tend to hammer them when scratching.
A DJ that’s focused on mixing/blending smoothly will require the mixer with fine control over EQ and effects.
As mixers are designed to be used alongside other units, like decks, they are often chunky in their construction. This is so they match the height and make the entire setup as ergonomic as possible.
Prices of Mixers
Prices of mixes vary massively depending on the features included, the build quality and of course the manufacturer. Big-name brands can run into thousands of dollars.
What Is the Crossover Between Mixers and Controllers?
A lot of mixers these days are MIDI enabled which we’ll cover in a moment. However, for the most part, mixers can be used without.
This means that they do not need to be plugged into a laptop or any other MIDI-enabled device to work. Instead, they can be plugged straight into speakers and vinyl or CD decks.
The Advantages of Mixers
Although the uses of a DJ mixer and a controller are different, mixers tend to be more flexible in the units that can be plugged into them. They can accept vinyl or CD decks and often have a line in for laptops. That said, lots of controllers these days also do allow the plugging in extra units.
Whereas the mixer serves one specific function and requires other units to be plugged in to function, the DJ controller can often do everything in one.
This does depend on the type of unit so there are a couple of distinctions to make here.
All-in-one DJ Controllers
An all-in-one controller condenses the traditional two decks and a mixer setup into one unit. They mimic the layout with the mixer in the middle and the two decks either side. The two decks will often have a platter as well as a variety of different controls.
The mixer in the middle will also follow the traditional layout with EQs, volume faders, a crossfader plus additional features such as effects.
The Main Difference Between DJ Mixer and DJ Controller
The biggest variation between a DJ mixer and DJ controller is in the additional controls offered. So, while an all-in-one unit will often have USB drives inputs, they can also often be linked to a laptop. This gives you additional options and the processing power of the laptop itself.
For example, some DJ software offers features like video mixing via the laptop, which is then controlled by the controller.
While many controllers are able to be used independently of a laptop, generally DJ software is always more user friendly when linked to a controller. Mixing smoothly is much more difficult when trying to use a standard laptop keyboard and mouse for example.
A controller makes this much easier by putting all parameters and controls right at your fingertips.
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Other Types of Controllers
While the above all-in-one units mimic a traditional deck setup, you also have MIDI controllers. These come in all shapes and sizes and are now designed to be a lot more flexible in their uses.
Whether they are made up primarily of pads, faders, knobs or a mixture they can generally be plugged via USB to a laptop in order to be used with a variety of DJ or music software.
While some MIDI controllers are designed specifically for certain software i.e the APC40 (see on Amazon) and Ableton. You can pretty much use any MIDI controller with any software and manually map controls.
This is why you will often see DJs with a variety of equipment. As they are able to piece together their ideal setup depending on what they require.
Skrillex, for example, uses Trigger Fingers (see his amazing gear here) alongside a mixer to give him the flexibility to perform his sets.
With tablets and smartphones becoming smarter there is an increasing number of apps that could be linked to controllers or even directly into mixers.
This essentially turns a phone or tablet into a DJ controller.
These will often have all of the same features and flexibility of a DJ controller so you are only really limited available space on the screen.
Some apps even allow you to customize and create your own layouts. This allows DJs and performers to go a step further in creating their ideal setup.
Vinyl Emulation DJ Controllers
DJ controller software like Serato DJ Pro and Traktor allows you to plug in traditional vinyl or CD decks and use them as control surfaces.
Using special CDs and vinyl you are able to manipulate the platter and scratch as if you had a real piece of vinyl on the decks.
In this sense, the lines are a bit blurred between controllers and mixers as you are using a traditional set of decks with DJ software.
So What Is the Difference Between DJ Mixer and DJ Controller?
As you may have gathered from above, there are a lot of elements from each technology that has, over the years, been incorporated into both.
However, they are still treated differently and each has very specific uses.
Mixers tend to be more often found in clubs than controllers. This is because controllers can vary massively in their functionality and reliability.
Whereas most professional-grade mixers, although they vary in functions and features, any professional DJ will be able to use any other mixer. Even if they’ve never seen that brand or make before.
Controllers tend to be used more by DJs at home or if they need to take their equipment with them to gigs. This is because controllers tend to be a lot more portable, especially the all-in-one units.
So, in essence, a DJ mixer is something that takes multiple inputs, merges them together and outputs one sound.
DJ controllers (either all-in-one units or via software on a laptop) both store the audio files and play them. They can then be mixed or manipulated via the inbuilt mixer.
Meaning a controller will have a mixer built-in, whereas a mixer will generally not incorporate the elements of the controller.
It is also worth noting that if a DJ has one piece of equipment they generally won’t need the other. For example, if you have an all-in-one unit you will not need to get a separate mixer.
One exception to this might be however if you have some of these smaller MIDI controllers described above.
Mixers can generally be used without software although some will have added functionality when plugged into a laptop.
Drawbacks of a Mixer
Mixers Can Be Expensive
And unless they are MIDIenabled and able to connect to software they will be limited in their functionalities.
What I mean by this is, when using a DJ controller, if there are new innovations or developments then software (on the laptop) can be easily upgraded. The functions of the buttons etc on the controller will then adapt to the new software.
However, a mixer that isn’t MIDI-enabled will only ever have the functions that were built in.
You just need to look at older style mixers that have basic functions such as two channels and simple cues versus modern mixers. These feature all sorts of knobs and buttons for use with effects and the like.
While this may be an extreme example, it does highlight the benefits of using software-enabled equipment.
Drawbacks of using DJ controllers
While DJ controllers can mimic/replace all the functionality of a traditional DJ setup, they are often not as tactile.
What I mean is, in the old days when you manipulated a vinyl you could literally feel the music. Any movements you made on the vinyl were instantly reflected in the sound.
To mimic this a DJ controller has to do it artificially. While it is possible, to achieve an authentic feel you have to go for the higher-end models.
Low-end models can often feel cheap and tacky. Although they do the job in that they allow you to mix music together, no professional-level DJ would consider using anything but a high-end model.
Restrictions of DJ controllers
Not all DJ controllers allow you to plug in additional units such as vinyl decks or CD decks. This could be limiting if you want to expand your setup or you are hosting a DJ who specializes in a specific setup.
That said many of the high-end units will allow you to plug in extra decks. Many can, in fact, be used purely as a standalone mixer without having to use any of their built-in controls.
Conclusion What Is the Difference Between DJ Mixer and DJ Controller?
In very basic terms, a mixer takes audio inputs and allows you to manipulate the volume and add effects. It still requires that you plug in something to actually play the music i.e decks.
Controllers tend to be all-in-one units that have both mixers and decks built-in. MIDI controllers need to be linked to a laptop so that they can control DJ/music software.
If you are just starting then a way to get yourself familiar with DJing at a reasonable rate might be to purchase a controller that you can upgrade at a later date.
However, if you intend to be playing in clubs pretty quickly then it can actually be worth investing in industry-standard equipment. Generally, this is Pioneer mixers and CDJs.
It is worth noting that the latest models of CDJs also go some way towards being a DJ controller as well. They actually serve as a bit of a bridge between the two. So controllers can be a great way to start although it’s always an idea to become familiar with a full set up because this is what you will encounter in clubs.