Even though there’s lots of different mixing gear available to DJs and producers these days, for a beginner starting out, they may be faced with the dilemma for what equipment they should be investing in.
While there is no right or wrong to go about this, it’s worth doing a comparison between the options to make sure you can learn and practise comfortably. Some swear by turntables to get familiar with the craft; whereas, others will simply skip the traditional methods and go straight to playing with a laptop and DJ software.
While each mixing setup works with the same tools, i.e, headphones, speakers, cables, etc, everyone learns in different ways at the end of the day. And there is nothing to say you can’t go back and learn alternative ways to mix later down the line.
To help you gain a better understanding of how each setup works, we’ve detailed the advantages and disadvantages below!
If you grew up in the 80s and 90s, turntables were practically the only things available to mix on. Unlike CDJs or controllers, these are entirely analogue and need to convert a phono output signal into a Line level in order to work with computers, stereos, speakers and monitors.
Newer turntable models with USB outputs already have preamps built in, and these automatically convert the signal. If you have your turntables hooked up to a DJ mixer, however, you won’t need to worry as this also functions as a preamp.
- Scratching – You can scratch on controllersand CDJ’s these days too, but the art of scratching derives and was perfected from mixing on traditional turntables.
- Best Sound – Even if the sound is recorded in analogue, you really can’t beat the authenticity of a vinyl record.
- Built to Last – Turntables are highly durable and can last for years if you look after them. We’ve got setups from the 90s which still work perfectly!
- Unique – If you walk into a vinyl store, you’ll often find vintage records that were never released on digital, or only ever had X copies made. Not only does this give you the ability to build up a unique record collection, these valuable treasures could sell for hundreds in years to come.
- Incredibly Fun – Once you know how to spin vinyl, it’s hard transitioning to anything else. It’s also more challenging, and this is where the fun and enjoyment comes from for many DJs.
- Easily Damaged – The needles and tone arms are very delicate on turntables, and they can get damaged quickly. Particularly if they are being used for parties or events.
- Heavy and Bulky – Each turntable contains weights and clamps which add a lot of extra mass to the unit. Most vinyl players weigh around 17Ibs, so transporting them can be a pain in the ass. Carting the records themselves can also play havoc on your back if you’re not careful.
- Lack of Records – Many modern-day labels don’t bother making vinyls and only have digital releases of certain tunes available. Unless you’re playing on digitized turntables, tune selection can be limited.
- Challenging – For someone who has never played vinyl before, it can be a challenge getting used to playing records this way. It’s extremely fun once you know how though!
- Expensive – It can cost a lot to maintain turntables as each of the components are usually sold separately. A pair of good cartridges cost between $120-$300.
CDJs are the most popular choice of DJ equipment used at events and clubs around the globe. They function in a very similar way to turntables, only tracks can be cued up automatically without having to fiddle around with the placement of the needles.
Most CDJs work with standard CDs or/and USB sticks these days, which is a lot more convenient than carrying around a heavy box of records. This is another reason why they are more favored in clubs over turntables.
- Industry Standard – You can safely turn up to an event with no more than a USB stick if the club has CDJs. They feature everything you could ever need to perform a great set.
- More to Play With– Thanks to BPM readers and the cue button, it’s much easier to mix on CDJs and quickly transition between songs compared to turntables. Having this extra time allows you to get creative in other areas of your set i.e., creating loops, using FX, mixing multiple tracks simultaneously.
- Cheaper – Getting a CDJ fixed can cost a lot less than fixing up a turntable or an entire controller, this is because the parts are more readily available and the materials cost less to make. It’s cheaper to purchase tracks in digital format than it is to purchase vinyl records separately too.
- No Skipping – Unlike turntables, which need a level surface to keep the music from skipping, CDJs will not skip or cut out if the table is bumped. They can even be elevated at certain angles to prevent bending over and putting pressure on your back.
- Expensive to Purchase – You can pick up older and smaller models of CDJs (like the 400s) for a few hundred bucks. However, if you want to buy a decent set of decks, these can cost $1,000 plus each.
- Not as Long-Lasting – CDJs are more prone to breaks and damage than controllers or turntables. They’re probably the least durable out of the three too.
- Latency Issues – Sometimes the jog wheels on CDJs can experience a kind of lag. This can cause your beats to come out of time during the mix, and be extremely frustrating.
- Doesn’t Feel Like Vinyl – A few will say they don’t feel much difference mixing on CDJs to vinyl, but a seasoned turntablist will honestly tell you it’s simply not the same.
Controllers are a modern and easy way for DJs to mix from the comfort of their laptop. They consist of two decks and a built-in mixer. Most controllers require a laptop and mixing software in order to perform, but overall they’re much lighter, portable and cheaper to buy than CDJs or turntables. They usually come with more functions than the others as well.
- Affordable – Controllers are great for beginners who don’t want to invest much into equipment to begin with. Some controllers cost as little as $50, but a really good one will go for a few hundred.
- Compact – Because they are all-in-one, controllers are easy to transport without the need for extra equipment, i.e. lots of cables, records, mixer, etc.
- Easy to Mix – Thanks to the sync button, you don’t really need to learn how to beatmatchto be able to mix on a controller. Most DJs frown upon those who use this function for this reason though. If you’re using sync to add other exciting elements to your set, however; why not!?
- More Functions – You have more creative abilities with controllers because they come with multiple different functions; hot cues, loops, FX, touch strips, assignable buttons and other components.
- Cheaper Music – Even though the actual sound quality is better in digital tracks compared to vinyl, particularly if they’re WAVs – it’s much cheaper to buy tracks and build a collection in this format.
- Prone to Faults – If you’re using a controller, a laptop is a must. This is risky because if your laptop malfunctions or decides to do an update during a set, you’re pretty much screwed if you haven’t got a backup.
- Not Engaging – If you’ve got your head buried in your laptop during a performance, it can look like you’re more interested in responding to emails rather than interacting with your crowd. This can make a big difference to the vibe of your overall set, including your enjoyment of it too.
- Smaller Buttons – The jog wheels, faders and knobs are naturally smaller on most controllers, which can be annoying and fiddly! This is because all the functions have been compacted into one unit.
- Software Orientated – Most controllers are only compatible with certain software, so unless a playlist is synced with your library, you won’t be able to play a USB stick or record off the cuff.
If a controller sounds like it could be up your street, or you want to know more about how they work – be sure to check out our recommendations for the best DJ controllers for both beginner and professional DJs.
We hope that’s given you a better understanding of the difference between turntables, CDJs and controllers. Remember, it’s important to feel comfortable with whatever gear you’re planning to play on as a DJ. The best way to establish which equipment is right for you is to try them all out individually. That way, you can get a feel for how each one works, whether it will suit your needs in terms of portability, functions and budget, etc.