Choosing a DJ mixerA DJ mixer guide for 2020
I often get asked “What’s the best DJ mixer for me?” and if you’re serious about DJ-ing you don’t just go out and buy any old mixer!
The music you want to play, the style of mixing and your budget make a BIG difference to which mixer is right for YOU. It’s important to get the right mixer for you!
Choosing the right DJ mixer can be daunting. There are so many to choose from and their quality and price vary massively. But don’t worry, help is here!
I’ve put together this guide to buying the best DJ mixer for you.
SO LETS GO!
2: What type of DJ am I?
3: Scratch mixer or regular mixer
4: Digital mixers vs analog mixers
5: Sample looping mixers
What is a DJ mixer?
DJ Mixers are not the same as audio mixers
Before choosing a DJ mixer its worth understanding the role of a DJ mixer and how it differs from other audio mixers.
Audio mixers give you the ability to mix sounds, of varying volumes, passing effects through multiple channels and outputting to a master channel. Usually in stereo. These are primarily used with live bands, orchestras, etc. While its possible to DJ with these types of mixers they aren’t designed for DJing. So don’t be fooled!
So how do DJ mixers differ from audio mixers? Well…
DJ mixers are designed to cover a number of roles that an audio mixer just can’t handle.
- Assisting in beat matching 2 or more audio channels
- Helping you deploy your mix with creative flare
- Applying effects and filtering to your audio channels
- Making your DJ set awesome!
Some DJ mixers will do more than just these 4 key things, some may do less, but generally this is what sets DJ mixers apart from regular audio mixers.
So lets take a look at each of those key features
Assisting in beat-matching
At a very basic level this means offering you a headphone audio preview of the audio channels that are not being played through the speakers. Giving you the ability to match the beat with the live music. That may sound like an obvious feature of a DJ mixer but mixers differ a LOT in how they do this for you. For instance some mixers offer the ability to hear through your headphones both the channel you want to beat match and the master channel, removing the need for a monitor speaker.
Ever seen DJs with headphones on both ears instead of just one? This will be why!
Preview mixing is a great feature that I’d recommend, especially if you want to protect your ears from damage.
Helping you deploy your mix with creative flare
Sure there are faders to bring the volume from 0% to 100% but mixing would be dull if that was your only option. DJ mixers have cross-faders to make things more interesting.
You can quickly chop and switch between 2 beat-matched tracks, scratch mix your tunes and get super creative with gates and kill switches. A great example of this the Behringer DJX900USB.
Applying effects and filtering to your audio channels
While audio mixers let you patch other effects hardware in to them, DJ mixers have this built in. How many effects and what you can do with them depends entirely on your budget.
At the very least you’ll want high, mid and low frequency gain dials, but DJ mixers can offer so much more. Especially digital mixers which can let you layer multiple filters and effects over multiple channels.
This can transform your DJ set in to something truly unique, warping and distorting the tunes you play in to something new and offering yet more awesome ways to deploy your mix.
Making your DJ set awesome!
DJ Mixers give you all the tools you need in one piece of hardware. They can vary in size and features but they’re all here to do the same thing, make your beat-matched music sound awesome.
Now its time to answer the question “Which DJ mixer is right for me?”. But first there’s something you need to ask yourself…
What type of DJ am I?
THE most important question you should ask yourself before buying a mixer.
I’ve seen it all too often where a beginner gets all excited when they have the budget to buy a pro DJ mixer and jumps right in with the latest shiny new piece of hardware, not thinking for a moment “Is this mixer right for my style of DJing?“.
They unwrap there new mixer, plug it in and find their new toy confuses them, ruins their mixing abilities and makes their sets sound awful!
That’s because there’s a type of mixer for every type of DJ. So what kind of DJ are you?
Ask yourself these questions…
- What style of music will you mostly be playing?
- Where will you be using your DJ mixer?
- What style of mixing do you want to perform?
These questions are vitally important before you make your purchase and will help guide you to the right mixer for the job.
If you’re mixing hip-hop or slower tempo musical styles you’ll find that the right DJ mixer is very different to that of an EDM / House DJ or a Drum & Bass DJ. The need for certain effects, mixing features and assistive tools can be different.
Your DJing style also has a big part to play in which mixer is right for you. Get the wrong type of DJ mixer and you’ll be making your life harder. You don’t want that right?
So lets break it down.
What style of music will you mostly be playing?
While you’re free to play whatever you want of course, and variety can be the spice of life, its worth considering which is your main music genre. Beat matching gets somewhat easier the faster the tempo so if you’re a hip hop or house DJ you might consider something with better beat-matching tools (especially if you’re a beginner).
Some mixers have beat counters, others have displays directly from your laptop’s software to show you the wave forms, others can sync the music for you! (but you really should learn to beat match yourself).
If you play hip hop or pop music then you’ll more likely want a DJ mixer that helps you perform tight scratches and easy cuts between tracks as well as quick cueing of your playlist.
If you DJ house music then filters and effects can add a lot of texture to your set, as well as the ability to grab loops and samples from audio channels and manipulate them.
If you’re a Drum & Bass or Hardcore DJ then having more than 2 audio channels may be a better choice for you, as well as multiple formats of input.
Where will you be using your DJ mixer?
This is a very important question because portability might be one of the most important factors! DJ Mixers vary in size and features but there’s no point buying an all-singing-all-dancing mixer if carrying it around is a pain.
If you’re a mobile disco DJ then you’ll want something light, very easy to set up and robust enough to handle all that life throws at it
If you’re a bedroom or home DJ just starting out then space may be an issue, don’t get a massive mixer if you have very little room to give it a good home.
If you’re a night club resident (or are fitting out a DJ Booth) then flexibility, intuitive design and plenty of input and output options are key.
What style of mixing do you want to perform?
This is kind of answered in the first question but if you love house music and also want to scratch mix then by all means go for it! Learning to scratch like a pro DJ is definitely something to consider and definitely changes what type of mixer is right for you.
Scratch mixing on a DJ mixer that isn’t designed for scratch mixing is definitely not fun and will make it much more difficult.
So lets take a look a the different types of mixers available and a few recommendations for you to check out.
Scratch mixer Vs regular mixer
So lets get the first easy comparison on the board shall we. Do you want to scratch mix your music or mix in a more regular style where effects other tricks are more important?
I ask this before comparing other types of DJ mixers because scratch mixers are WAY different to normal mixers.
Here’s a couple of reasons why…
Scratch mixers (or battle mixers) are all about the cross fader! They have a very robust but seriously slippery cross fader on them specifically designed to help you cut your scratch audio in and out with lightning fast precision. While many mixers have cross faders they’ll never be as good as a mixer designed just for scratching. Some prime examples of this are Numark M4 3-Channel Scratch DJ Mixer and the Numark M6 which features a replace-able cross fader when you eventually wear yours out.
Scratch mixers are generally simple and elegant. This is partly down to the fact that most scratch DJs don’t want a million bells and whistles on their mixers, they want solid, reliable, easy to setup mixers. Scratch DJs are usually busy scratching rather than fiddling with lots of effects buttons and dials. Sometimes too much choice can distract you from what you’re trying to achieve which is awesome precise scratch mixing!
So what if you’re not interested in scratch mixing? Well there are plenty of options for you. It really depends on your answers to the questions in the last chapter. Whether you need something small for home use, easy to set up for club use or highly portable and reliable for mobile DJ use.
So lets cover some more of those regular ol’ mixers shall we.
Digital mixers vs analog mixers
New school Vs Old Skool
If you’ve already started researching mixers then you’ll probably be aware that much of today’s modern DJ hardware is digital. The Mixer has evolved to now include sound cards, USB connections, software driven effects and even the ability to browse playlists and select loop samples.
Things have definitely moved on since the days of analog mixers. But this doesn’t mean you should overlook our old analog friend. They’re just as useful as they ever were and in some cases the perfect fit for your DJ setup.
So lets compare the two. Why would you pick one over the other.
Digital DJ mixers
These offer an astounding array of features these days and are really a computer in themselves, dedicated to the task of helping you DJ. They are an extension of your laptop and nearly all of them require computer hardware to do anything.
Firstly they contain a professional grade audio card which can handle high-quality audio from multiple sources, often 4 decks plus mics and optional inputs and outputs. All of it is handled by an on board computer which means adding effects like filters, echos, reverbs and gates is very easy.
This means you’ll often see digital mixers with a tonne of dials and buttons, often with shift keys to add multiple functions to the buttons too! While there are some super slick little digital mixers out there like the Akai AMX and the Numark M101, you’ll also see plenty of monsters that pack in a lot of features, like the Behringer DJX750 and the Traktor Kontrol Z2.
While its great to have features you need to ask yourself, do you need them all? Are they helping you to be a better DJ or complicating your already busy DJ activities. Are you really likely to be layering 3 effects on one audio track while loop sampling and talking out of 2 mics and monitor speakers? If you don’t need all of that then maybe consider a mixer that just has what you need.
Its easy for digital mixer manufacturers to add lots of features as most are just software driven, it doesn’t mean the features are useful and intuitive to use during your DJ set.
Analog DJ Mixers
While I admit I do own a digital mixer I am proud to say I still have my trust analog mixer too and for good reason! Analog mixers tend to be super reliable and simple to use too. Most pro DJ software can handle working with analog mixers if you have the right sound outputs.
Of course vinyl turntables plug straight in to an analog DJ mixer, no messing about. Just plug in and away you go. If you’re a scratch DJ or love playing vinyl then an analog mixer is all you need to get going.
For this reason they’re cheap compared to their digital cousins, they’re often smaller too so very portable and great for bedroom DJ and home studio use. A great example of this is the Citronic Pro 2B.
While they may not be as versatile as a digital mixer they can pack plenty of features for a lot less money. Their parts are easier to replace and with the right setup they can still work perfectly with today’s modern audio sources like laptops and CDJs.
If you plan on using an analog mixer with a laptop setup you’ll need more than just the one sound output. This can easily be achieved with a USB sound card. They’re relatively inexpensive depending on the quality you need. Check out the Behringer UCA202 for budget or something like the Traktor A6 for pro use.
Sample looping mixers
Beat-matching tracks and fading from one to another is the basis for almost all DJing styles but thanks to the rise of digital mixers and laptops as DJ tools its now possible to get much more creative!
Why play a tune from start to finish when you can loop parts of them, takes samples from them, rework the sounds and create entirely new versions of tracks live! This is all possible with some digital DJ mixers.
But there are some rules that your choice of DJ mixer needs to meet before you buy iy.
- Capturing and looping samples should be easy to achieve and quickly!
- Saving multiple loops and jumping between them should be easy
- Syncing loops with a chosen BPM or another master track is essential
Why are these so important? Well think for a moment.
Imagine you’re in the middle of a DJ set in front of a crowd of clubbers, the pressure is on!
You want to instantly capture a sample and loop it. But the overwhelming number of buttons on the mixer confuses you!
You hit the wrong button! Disaster! The set is ruined! Now which button do you press to fix it all? Gaah!
Understand your mixer
So its important to know how your mixer will achieve the sample capturing and looping. How easy will it be for you to do that during your set? Syncing with the master track is also very important as loop sampling isn’t just about capturing and replaying audio.
You need to make sure the loop you have is the exact length to loop seamlessly, so your mixer needs to know the exact BMP and also match it to the other audio channel that might be playing to your adoring crowd. Most quality digital mixers can do this especially those designed to work with DJ software like Serato and Traktor. Just beware that other cheaper DJ mixers that claim to have looping capabilities may have just added this feature because it was easy to manufacture.
My advice, read a few reviews, watch some YouTube videos of the mixer you’re thinking of buying. See how others use the sampling features. Get to know your mixer before you’ve even purchased it.
From personal experience I can recommend the Traktor mixers. They have both budget and pro versions that are easy to use and offer some powerful looping abilities.
2 deck mixers Vs 4 deck mixers
You’ve probably seen DJs on YouTube showing off by seamlessly mixing 4 decks at seemingly impossible speeds and accuracy. Don’t fall for the hype, more decks doesn’t equal better DJ sets.
Traditionally DJs had 2 decks, playing a record live to the crowd (or your bedroom) while previewing the 2nd deck through headphones, beat-matching and mixing in that track at just the right moment.
And this is still at the core of any good DJ set but things have evolved over the years. Audio sources have switched from analog turntables and CD players to laptops and digital hardware. Offering a lot more creativity.
If sample looping is something you’re in to then you might want to consider a DJ mixer that can handle 4 decks.
Here’s a typical scenario that shows how 4 decks could be useful
- Deck 1 is playing a tune to your crowd (the master track)
- Deck 2 is looping a percussion sample or vocal track
- Deck 3 has one-off samples cued ready to play at the push of a button
- Deck 4 you are previewing the next master track through headphones, ready to add to the mix
So you can see how easily you might use up all 4 decks. Sounds awesome right? But there are plenty of reasons why you would NOT want to have 4 decks and should stick with 2.
Here’s a few reasons why 2 decks is enough
- Adds complexity to your DJ set at a moment when you’re already under pressure to perform
- More chances of failure if loops go out of sync or you push the wrong button
- You need to own 4 decks, increasing the cost of your setup
- The club you’re playing in may not have 4 decks (its more common but still a consideration)
- Mixers with 4 channels are more expensive than 2
So there’s plenty of reasons to stick with just 2 decks on your DJ mixer, especially if budget is important to you. There’s absolutely no shame in being an awesome DJ on just 2 decks, so don’t let those YouTube DJs fool you.
Having said that, 4 decks can be a lot of fun and add some real creative flare to your set. If you really want to do something different in your DJ set then mastering the art of sample looping and having a unique set of loops and one-hit samples can really add something awesome.
Just remember 4 deck mixers are adding a new layer of complexity so picking the right mixer that you can intuitively use is vital.
For something super portable and easy to start with check out the Behringer CMD MM-1. If you’re looking for something that packs a real creative punch then maybe the Traktor Kontrol S4 Mk 3 would suit you.
Depending on the type of DJ you are this might not be important to you. But to others like mobile disco DJs its vitally important. While most DJ mixers include mic inputs their quality, flexibility and features does vary a lot.
If you do need a mic setup with your DJ gear then I recommend you purchase the mic AFTER you purchase the mixer. Its better to have the right tools for most of your job and then add the peripherals on later. If you buy a mic first and find your dream mixer doesn’t like your mic it’ll cause you unnecessary headaches.
Things to look out for on a DJ mixer
Does the mixer have multiple mic inputs? I’d recommend more than one if possible for versatility
Does it support MIC input or LINE input? (or both). These are very different beasts. Most modern mic setups especially radio mics are LINE input but some can be MIC. Older more traditional mics use the lower power MIC input. The two are not transferable so make sure the mic you have matches the input. You’ll usually find the MIC style input is a different more heavy duty connector when compared to the jack style plug on LINE inputs.
Does the mixer have a “talk-over” feature? Very handy if you’re stepping away from your mixer but still want the music to play at original volume when you’re not talking. Talk-over will dip the music automatically when you start talking. You wont find this feature on many modern digital mixers that are integrated controllers too. The Skytec STM-7010 has this feature but its becoming less common so if its important you’ll need to hunt around for it.
Nightclub DJ mixers
I thought it was important to mention how a DJ mixer you might find in a nightclub could differ from the type you might use at home or on a mobile disco setup.
Depending on the size of the night club and the number of DJs it uses, a nightclub DJ mixer needs need be a number of important things
- Versatile – DJs could be turning up with all sorts of deck setups or requirements for their set
- Robust – This mixer is in it for the long haul, most likely a few years use so needs to be tough
- Fully featured – You might not need all its tools but some other DJ might
Night club DJ mixers spend their life in a dark and sweaty club, I’ve seen drinks knocked on them, faders broken off of them, I’ve witnessed mixers die mid-set or pop a fuse and take out the whole DJ booth.
None of these things are what you want to happen, so if you’re buying a DJ mixer for a night-club setup be sure to think about those 3 key points. If you go cheap you’ll almost certainly run in to problems in the future. If you don’t get all the latest features like filters, pass-through channels, mic channels, replaceable cross-faders, etc then you might not be giving your DJs all the tools they need.
2 DJ setups in one booth
Its worth considering how your DJs will hand over to one another if you plan to have multiple DJs. You may be limited on space so this might not be an option, but if you want the best setup go for 2 mixers with 2 sets of decks that run directly to a master audio mixer for the sound system. Some of the bigger nightclubs like Ministy Of Sound do this so that their DJs are all cued up, tracks and loops loaded and ready to go. No need to do the rather awkward handover from one DJ to the next.
My advice, whatever mixer you purchase, know how it works inside out before you install it and I highly recommend you buy a backup that you keep in the original box and close by, ready to be thrown in there in an emergency. A good quality, robust, versatile mixer is worth every penny!
Mobile Disco mixers
A mobile disco DJ setup is very different to that of a nightclub DJ. Generally its a long term investment that will be used by one person in multiple environments. So here’s a few important pointers for mobile disco DJ mixers
- Highly portable – You don’t want some heavy beast weighing you down
- Easy to set up – No lengthy configuration, just plug in the inputs and outputs
- Highly intuitive to use – Complicated features are overkill for a mobile DJ
- Robust – Its going to be moved about a lot so needs to be well built
Most mobile DJs play pop and dance music rather than 3 hour hard-trance sets so the features you’ll need will differ. The need for 4 decks is probably out, along with all those effects and filters.
Sample looping is a feature I would keep and in fact this goes hand-in-hand with what I would recommend.
Integrated DJ controllers and mixers
There’s some really great mixers out at the moment that combine all of the features you’d want in a mixer with all the features you’d expect to see on traditional decks. All you’ll need is the one controller / mixer unit and a laptop. What could be more portable?!
Speaking to mobile DJs who use this every day I can recommend the Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 if you’re on a budget. Featuring jog wheels to cue up your tracks, a very intuitive layout you’ll master in minutes and some basic looping features which can help extend the intro of a track. If you have more money I’d definitely go for the Traktor Kontrol S8 which has built in displays for track browsing and cue-ing. It has trigger pads samples and looping, 4 channels for extra creativity, effects and some pro mic inputs. It pretty much has everything you need in one robust unit.
Budget mixers for beginners
Hopefully you’ve seen plenty here to inspire you and help you make an informed decision when you buy your DJ mixer.
If you’re just starting out and thinking all this is overwhelming then I suggest you just start with a simple setup. There’s no need to over complicate things when when you’re a beginner. Its more important to learn to be a better DJ than it is to have all the faders and flashing buttons you can lay your hands on.
So here’s a few types specifically for beginners
Stick to your budget – Don’t worry if your mixer doesn’t have all the features others have. Whats important is that you learn to mix seamlessly
2 decks is fine – Master the art of 2 deck mixing before you move on to bigger things. Jumping right in the deep end with 4 decks will only make a beginner sound worse. Impress on 2 decks then graduate to 4.
Buy hardware thats scalable. Digital mixers often allow more than one present in any setup, so you could have a 2 deck mixer like the Traktor Z1 (Check out this bundle) and easily add another Z1 when you want 4 decks.
Go analog – Who needs a laptop anyway, get some vinyl or CD decks, plug them straight in to an analog mixer and you’re good to go! What could be easier!
Time to choose your mixer
Hopefully this guide has given you enough pointers to help you make an informed choice when purchasing your mixer.
Your musical preference, your Dj-ing style and your working environment all play important parts in your choice. Along with your budget!
There’s plenty to choose from so don’t get overwhelmed, analyse your needs and then you’re sure to get a DJ mixer that is just right for you.