Why You Should Stop Controller-Shaming (A Message to “Traditional” DJs)

Have you ever been talked down to because of your choice of DJ equipment? Don’t worry, I already know the answer.

No matter what gear you choose, the style of music you play, the software you use.. there’s always some all-knowing DJ standing close by, ready to criticize you for it.

As someone who finds the joy in mixing on just about any format, it’s hard for me to relate. I mix records, I enjoy playing CDJs at the club, and my Kontrol S8 is an absolute blast. And none of those formats have anything to say about my level of skill or talent as a DJ.

It All Boils Down To One Thing…


Bear with me, here. Before you close this browser window and never read my articles again, please realize that I’m not saying that old-school DJs are jealous of the gear that digital DJs possess. Nor am I saying that one kind of equipment or approach is better than the other.

But, the fact is that fly-by-night digital DJs have it WAAAAAY easier than the dedicated old-schoolers did. Well, at least at first glance.

Quite honestly, it’s not all that difficult for any random Tom, Dick, or Harry with a laptop and a $150 controller to be able to mix tunes and “play out”… officially giving themselves clearance to be referred to as DJs.

For those who invested thousands of dollars in turntables (and needles, and had to learn how to maintain them), slowly built up a meticulously-crafted vinyl collection, and had to learn all the technical skills of DJing manually… the idea that pretty much anyone can accomplish the same thing these days with little-to-no investment is a bit hard to swallow:

I used the word jealousy, which is a pretty loaded term. But I think it’s natural to feel a bit torqued in this situation. How can those of us who took the time to do it “the traditional way”, and invested money in “real equipment”, not feel a little salty about someone who just jumps on the bandwagon because it’s cool and accessible?

Round and Round We Go

Instagram is the Traktor of the photography world.

Think about it. Instagram lets you take appealing photos, with cheap equipment that you probably already have, without learning any photography skills, and share them with an audience.

For an everyday, end-user… Instagram is a cool trick. It’s a gimmick which (potentially) allows you to increase the appeal of your photos, without any real investment. And that’s fine!

For a real photographer, however… Instagram is merely a tool in a bag filled with hundreds of other tools that she knows how to use appropriately because she knows photography.

Do you see what I’m getting at, here? There’s a difference between a Traktor user and a DJ. Traktor users know how to use Traktor, and DJs know how to DJ… possibly by using Traktor.

The method doesn’t really matter… it’s the output and the approach that truly determine whether or not a DJ is worth his salt.

Opinions, Opinions…

The worst part about equipment-shaming is the fact that everyone has a different opinion on where to draw the line. For some, laptop DJing with sync is cheating. For others, you’re fine as long as you’re using a “pro-grade” controller. For others, CDJs are for cheaters.

Some think using timecode is cheating. If you go back enough, you’d find people that thought direct drive turntables with pitch control was cheating.

Further still, some people think DJing in general is “faking it”. Live PA is where it’s at… DJing is just standing there while other people’s tunes play.

Want to keep going? Electronically created music in general is cheating. Software and drum machines are for suckers. Learn how to play a real instrument!

Electric pianos and MIDI keyboards are cheating. Save up for a baby grand piano.

You get the idea. Everyone has their own idea on where to draw the line, but none of these arguments help to answer the question that’s actually important, here: how will any of these things make you a better or worse DJ?

Toys vs. Tools

Where do you draw the line between what counts as “beginner gear” as opposed to “pro gear”?

Only a few years ago, there was a much clearer line between the two. Beginner, or “budget” hardware was of notably sub-standard quality and packed in less features.

But, thanks largely to the huge explosion of DJ controllers that have hit the market in the past few years… the lines are becoming more and more blurred all the time. The interest in feature-rich and budget-friendly DJ controllers (and other gear) has started to close the gap between the “cheap plastic toys” and the “real stuff”.

Part of the reason that there is less difference these days between home, prosumer and full-on professional gear is the fact that there’s become little difference in the features.

Beyond the Basics

Some of the basic cornerstones of DJing, such as beatmatching and gain control, have been largely taken over by technology. Sync, auto gain, and the forgiving nature of digital hardware means that you hardly “need” to know how to do them now.

And DJs expect a lot out of their gear nowadays. Can you imagine buying an all-in-one controller in 2013 that doesn’t have a built-in audio interface or quality performance pads?  Of course not… they all have that now. How about buying a belt-driven turntable to mix on?

So, what do companies do in order to stay afloat?  They add features.

Feature Creep

Knobs which make wild things happen with a flick of the wrist (such as the Sound Color FX on the DJM 900 Nexus), contact-less controls which let you mangle the sound by moving your hands around like a crazy person (such as the Hercules DJ Control Air), or customizable LED colors (such as on the Pioneer DDJ-WeGO series). This is due to a phenomena known as feature creep.

Sure, some of the extraneous features of modern DJ gear range from unnecessary to plain laughable. So, what if you wanted to emulate just the simple basics of traditional mixing? Something like the Gemini Firstmix would do just fine, but tell me that doesn’t seem like an amateur plastic toy.

However, any good DJ should be able to completely rock a party with a toy like that.  So where does the line really get drawn?

Why It Matters

So if my point is to say that the output matters more than the medium, why do I care what other people think about the subject?

Because the shaming is destructive. It forces people to ask themselves the wrong questions: “how can I be accepted without a set of expensive turntables?”; “how can I become a Traktor ninja so that I can prove people wrong?”; “do I not love this as much as other DJs?”.

And laptop DJs, you’re not exempt, here. There are plenty of digital DJs who “call out” vinyl or CD DJs because of their choice of format. (“Get with the times” talks ensue.)

Instead, users of all formats should be asking the same question: how can I become better at DJing?

And learning to become a better DJ through passion and purpose is something that surpasses petty arguments over what kind of media player is cooler to you.

The Bottom Line

If there’s any main point I want to make here, it’s this: don’t judge a book by it’s cover.

The simple fact of the matter is that while technology continues to close gaps (in skill, affordability, accessibility, and feature set)… it doesn’t mean that piss poor DJs are suddenly made into good ones.

Technology is closing the gaps for the more mundane tasks of DJing (beatmatching, gain control, carrying 50 lb. crates, etc.), but the things that make a good DJ have not changed: your skills, your ability to read the crowd, your intuition on knowing when to play the right track at the right time, and your ability to put on an enjoyable performance.

I’m not saying not to buy high-end gear… I say buy what makes you happy.

The gear is simply a tool to broadcast the tunes. What you do with it is up to you.