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How Do DJ Controllers Work? the Truth Revealed

By Ferdi Vol
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Perhaps the most distinctive thing that separates DJs from other similar professions is the fact that they use a nifty little hardware called a DJ controller. Before the invention of the controller, DJs needed to mix using turntables, which was something much more cumbersome and prone to malfunctions. Now, have you ever wondered how exactly does a controller work?

To answer the above question, DJ controllers work by transmitting modified sound signals to a computer or laptop software, which in turn combine the sounds to create a completely new mix. In essence, controllers do not work by mixing the passages, instead, the controller sends said passages to a DJ software, where the final sound modification is done.

So essentially, controllers do exactly what their name suggests: control things like EQ, track selection, BPM, among other things. The big pro about using controllers over mixing on a laptop is that you get to mix in a similar way to how most popular DJs play. As you probably know, mixing in a controller is simply much more intuitive and simple than doing so on a laptop.

In this article, I will be talking a little bit more about controllers, their history, and if there's a difference between a CDJ and a controller. I also talk about the differences between a controller and a mixer, and which one should you be choosing if you are a new DJ and haven't bought gear yet. I hope you find this article useful!

A Brief History of DJ Controllers

Before the invention of the DJ controllers, DJs used to mix with turntables, something that was not only cumbersome given the fact that the DJs needed to carry a significant amount of Vinyl discs around but also limited song repertoire since the number of songs that a DJ could play was limited by how many LPs he could afford or carry around. Most experts on the matter agree that modern DJing (not radio DJing) started in the early 80s, using turntables of course.

The introduction of the controller and the appearance of digital audio files completely changed the game as DJs knew it. Instead of moving around with fragile turntables, a mixer and a crapton of vinyl discs, DJs started using hardware that combined everything they needed in a single piece of equipment, with all the songs to be found on a laptop or on something much more compact like a CD or a USB drive.

It's not completely sure which controller was the first one introduced into the market. Some people say that either a Pioneer controller or the Hercules DJ console was the first one, but this is up for debate. The point is that these new controllers not only made mixing much more comfortable, but they saved people a lot of money, especially as digital media and the controllers themselves gained popularity.

Today, controllers are often seen as a more accessible, but inferior mixing tool compared to CDJ, and they tend to be the very first thing that new DJs often purchase. I personally started mixing using a controller, and I probably wouldn't have gone much further with DJing if I didn't have one handy.

CDJs vs Controllers: What Are the Main Differences?

If you are new in the world of DJing and do not know the answer to this, let me tell you that it's very simple. While there's much more than this obviously, the main difference is that a controller contains two jog wheels and an interface to modify the EQ and the faders, while a CDJ only contains a single jog wheel and depending on the model a few other extra functions. If you want to play using CDJs, then you are going to have to buy 2 CDJs and a mixer, unlike a controller in which you only need to buy one piece of gear and that's it (aside from things like headphones and microphones, etc..).

There are a few other differences between controllers and CDJs though. One of them is the fact that CDJs allow you to mix without using DJ software or a laptop, while that's not possible using most controllers on the market. The CDJ gives you the ability to use it with USB drives, CDs, and other music sources, which is one of the reasons why they are so commonplace in high-end clubs worldwide. Using CDJs means that a DJ doesn't even need to bring his own gear. He can just plug in a USB stick and start playing without any hassle.

Another difference is the price point. CDJs are notorious in the DJing industry for their steep price points, and while they are well worth it, not everybody has 5 grand to spend on two CDJs and a mixer. This is where controllers really shine. They are much more affordable than CDJs, without a steep drop in quality. Most newbies tend to start out using cost-effective and affordable controllers, eventually upgrading to a CDJ set when they are more seasoned and when they have the cash to spare.

A few months ago, I wrote a little bit about the main differences between controller and CDJs, so if you want to learn more about this topic, please click here!

Controllers and Mixers: How Are They Alike?

Now that we have explained what are the differences between CDJs and controllers, let's do the same with mixers and controllers. Many people think that controllers include a built-in mixer inside, but this is not the case. As I mentioned above, controllers only send the music signals to a computer & DJ software. The actual mixing is done by the software itself. That's why you can't use a controller if you do not have a computer to connect it with.

This is not the case with a mixer. As the name suggests, the mixer works by mixing two or more sound channels, while giving you the added function of fine-tuning these sound passages using the EQ knobs. Many mixers give you the added capability to use them with only a computer inputting the music, while others will only mix from music from a CDJ or player.

While using a proper mixer is a good idea if you are a more seasoned DJ for several reasons, must newbie DJs are better off using a controller, especially considering the fact that good mixers are super expensive, as useful as they might be.


As I mentioned above, controllers work exactly as their name suggests: they transmit sound signals and then they are sent to a DJ software found on a laptop. The software is what actually does the sound modification itself. After this, the modified sound is transmitted to a PA system. A controller distinguishes itself from a CDJ because the controller can't modify the sound signals, it just sends them to the software. A CDJ does something similar, but instead of sending modify sound signals to a laptop, it sends them to a mixer instead.

By Ferdi Vol
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About DJ Pro Tips
DJ Pro Tips is a website that has the goal to make you a better DJ by providing useful and accurate information.
About the Author
Ferdi Vol is a DJ for several years and is here to share his passion with you.
About Ferdi Vol
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