What is The Difference Between a DJ Controller and Mixer?


If you are planning to become a DJ, you need more than just talent. DJ equipment is going to be important so you harness the talent in the best possible way. In the beginning, you will need to learn a lot about the different gadgets and their functions. You will also need to be aware of the multiple brands if you want to find one that suits your style.

In today’s article, we discuss one of the common confusions in the Djing world, especially if you are just beginning. It is easy to get confused between a DJ controller and mixer. However, there are certain differences that keep the two apart.

To give a complete overview, we will discuss the controller and mixers in detail, then we will continue towards explaining the difference.

What is a DJ Controller?

DJ Controller
DJ Controller

Modern DJ controllers have 3 basic parts; namely the control surface, an audio interface, and control of tablet or smartphone applications.

The control surface features knobs, buttons, pads or faders, and jog wheels. These are used for the hands-on control of the software functions and settings. The surface will also contain display and LEDs. These are helpful in indicating parameters like audio levels and system status.

The audio interface’s function is to transport the signal to external equipment. This includes computers, mobile devices, PA systems, and effects processor. The number of external equipment that requires a signal will depend on what type of connectors are available with the controller.

Lastly, most of the new age controllers come with smartphone and tablet support.

Why a DJ Needs a Controller?

DJs use software to access their mixes and apply effects. It is completely possible to manage a software interface using mouse and keyboards as one does with a computer. However, it can become a tedious process when you have to go through so many menus, especially when you are in the middle of a gig. A controller provides an effective hardware interface to configure the software.

Types of DJ Controllers

A DJ has to carefully consider that the controller is compatible with the software being used. There are both controllers that are either software specific or those that can work with different software. The benefit of software specific controller is that it can provide a powerful integration with the given software. However, it is required that you be sure and set on that software as a DJ. In this situation, the software and controller will work together to provide an excellent level of performance. The functions of the software will respond more efficiently with a controller specifically designed for it.

On the other hand, a DJ will be unable to use these controllers with other standard software. There are some gigs or situations, especially in the beginning, that might not give you access to your own equipment and you will have to do with what is being provided. And it is possible that it will be standard software and your software specific controller will fail in this case. This is why many DJs may favor software versatile controllers. These come with templates for major DJ software so the mapping from the controller to software becomes easy.

Let us now discuss different types of controllers in terms of their hardware. You can buy USB and wireless controllers, ones with the iOS connection, and vinyl.

It can be incredibly feasible for DJs to use wireless controllers. Fewer the wires, lesser the hassle during a gig. In many controllers, the connection to the software is provided through a USB. Some controllers come completely without wires. These provide even more freedom of movement. Some feature accelerometer-based MIDI controls so the functions can be managed through movements and gestures.

Smartphone age has given rise to a large number of DJ applications. This is why iOS has become an option for many DJs. Adding a few components to an iPod touch, iPhone or iPad, these devices can be converted into an effective rig. This is also an affordable option. This is also a great method of trying out Djing when you are not really sure about continuing it as a career.

Vinyl controllers are chosen by many DJs when they don’t want to go digital. While digital DJ equipment provides more flexibility, it also produces low sound quality according to many DJs. It is said that digital tools take a snapshot when capturing analog sounds. This fails to produce the complete sound waves so the sound definition and impact are decreased. On the other hand, some DJs find vinyl creative and as a classier option than digital tools. Although, at the end of the day, choosing digital or vinyl controllers depends on what suits a DJ’s needs.

What are DJ Mixers?

DJ Mixer
DJ Mixer

Now that we have explained DJ controllers in detail, we move on towards explaining DJ mixers. It is easy to confuse mixers with controllers because many controllers have taken mixer like features nowadays. Additionally, the mixers have become more compatible with software than controllers. Advanced mixers are now capable of integrating with multiple popular DJ software.

Many DJs prefer the software related controllers for mixing but the mixers provide improved connectivity and traditional surfaces. A mixer comes with many components, which we will try to explain briefly.

  • The back panel comes with inputs to plug in the turntables and aux cable to CD players. You will also find insert points to send the signals through external effects and processors. Different mixers provide varying inputs and outputs. Additional inputs may include USB, MIDI, and FireWire

  • Each signal input of a mixer is a channel. Every connection will have its own channel. For example, the left and right turntables will have their separate channels. Although, every channel has the same controls. If you learn one, you learn all of them no matter how many there are

  • Mixers may come with kill switches. These can be used to turn off the lows, mids, and highs. A DJ can also pull the switches down to temporarily kill a frequency and they can come back up on their own. They can also be flipped upwards to switch off a frequency until the DJ flips them back down

  • There will be a gain or trim control at the top of each channel. These can be used to control the level of each separate input channel

  • Also known as the rotary kills, there are EQ knobs below the gain controls. These let the DJs control the level of bass, treble, and midrange for each channel

  • Scratch mixers often come with a hamster switch. These let the DJ reverse the crossfader positions. It is helpful because the DJs can scratch using the same motion no matter which turntable side they use

  • The channel faders allow the DJ to adjust the volume of each channel at a time. The crossfaders, on the other hand, allow to fade in one channel and fade out the other at the same time

  • Peak meters indicate the level of the channels or the master output. It can also indicate clipping and multi-colored LEDs so the DJ knows how close they are to clipping

  • If you don’t have a microphone, the mic input and talkover button can let the DJ speak through the earphone. The talkover button helps to reduce the volume of music when the DJ is talking

  • The BPM counter allows the DJ to know if the BPM of the sound files is matched up in order so the transitions are smoother

  • A cue level can be used to adjust the volume in the headphones

  • The cue mix acts as a crossfader for the headphones so the DJ can preview a mix before the audience listens to it

  • The master level can help adjust the level of the final mix

What is the Difference?

A DJ controller is an all in one package. It will feature transport controls for the decks, volume, speed, and EQs. On the other hand, a DJ mixer is a dedicated mixing suite. It will take inputs from record decks, CDJs or an external soundcard attached to a laptop that runs the software.

The difference in price is also significant. The reason is the difference between the build and sound quality. Mixers are more expensive but can be bought cheap too. However, the cheaper mixers can be expected to need a replacement every year. The expensive ones are often used in the top clubs and music festivals. They are incredibly valuable and brilliant in their performance.

If you are a professional DJ who wants the best quality of sound and can afford expensive equipment, you can prefer the mixer. But it can get confusing as both mixers and controllers take elements from each other nowadays. You will have to do a thorough research and be aware of what your DJ requirements are so you can make the right choice. Of course, you will also have to consider reputable brands regardless of whether you are buying a controller or mixer.