What’s the Difference Between a DJ Mixer and a DJ Controller?

DJ equipment can be overwhelming, especially if you’re just getting started. I know I was a bit overwhelmed in the beginning. Personally, I think the first pieces of equipment worth looking at a mixer and a controller. At first, you might think they’re interchangeable, but they’re not. They’re actually very different.

So, what is the difference between a DJ mixer and a DJ controller? A DJ controller is an interface used to manipulate the DJ software doing the mixing. A DJ mixer takes audio from different external sources and mixes them internally without the need for any additional software.

If you’re just getting into DJing as a hobby and aren’t sure what you need, it helps to really understand the differences between these two important pieces of equipment so you know what to invest in first and which will be more useful to you.

DJ Controller Versus DJ Mixer

Way back when DJs performed using only a couple of turntables and a mixer. Much like everything else in the music business, all of that changed with the digital age. It started with MP3s and advanced to where we are now, with most music being stored and played digitally. This new format brought more reliability, easier transport, and an even greater opportunity to control the music.

DJ software advanced in leaps and bounds, too, and controllers soon became essential. What exactly is a controller? At it’s core, it’s simply a physical interface. Think of a DJ controller as a really fancy keyboard or computer mouse. Its job is to help you use DJ software to get the sound you want.

You might be wondering; Can I just use a mouse or keyboard? Technically, you can, but you’d spend all your time hunting through menus trying to find the controls and effects you’re looking for.

The truth is it’s just not possible to get the kind of hands-on control you need using anything but a controller. The dials, knobs, and plates all correspond to specific parts of the software and the controller provides a truly hand-on experience.

An important thing to understand is the controller doesn’t mix sound on its own, it only manipulates the software you already have. All of the work is really done by this software using the CPU and hard drive on the computer. This means that your controller is really only as good as the software you’re using. It’s important to be comfortable not only with the controller but the interface of the software, too.

Now, onto mixers…

DJ mixers take in audio from external sources and, well, mix them. You can connect CDs, turntables, USB drives, even a laptop by simply plugging them into external jacks on the mixer.

Mixers are the most common piece of equipment used when playing live music because they’re just so much more versatile than using a controller and software. For example, a mixer can take any sound and turn it into a musical instrument, add sound effects, or help create a smooth transition between the end of one song and beginning of another.

Here’s the takeaway: a DJ mixer doesn’t control any software. It does all the work itself using whatever external equipment you want to use. Basically, it does exactly what its name says it does. It mixes sound.

What Are the Parts of a DJ Controller?

These days, a powerful laptop, capable software, and the right controller are one option for a good set up. Remember, a controller is essential to using the modern software effectively and you need good versions of both to get the best results.

dj controller

There are a lot of different controllers available depending on how sophisticated you want to get and how much experience you have. That said, most have the same basic parts:

  • Platters, the disc-like pads that a DJ manipulates to electronically create different scratches and sounds. Sort of a modern vinyl turntable.
  • Crossfaders, a necessary part of any DJ controller to create a smooth transition from one audio file to another.
  • Pitch Control, which allows the DJ to change the speed of the sound.
  • Level Control to set the final volume before a track is considered complete.
  • Master and gain headphone controls to manage input signal volume and strength.
  • Headphone and main output jacks for personal and public playback.

Some controllers include software but that doesn’t necessarily mean you are tied to only that software. Most modern controllers use MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) to communicate with the software so you should be able to use most controllers with any DJ mixing programs. Note that that is not always the case so you should always check compatibility between your laptop, controller, and software. One thing that makes this a little easier is that most new systems are compatible with both Mac and Windows.

What Are the Parts of a DJ Mixer?

One perk of using a mixer is that there’s more connectivity and versatility than with a controller. You can bring in more auxiliary equipment for a wider variety of audio. All mixers are different, but they do share some of the same basic parts:

  • Multiple inputs, including RCS inputs for turntables and aux inputs for CD players as well as USB and MIDI inputs.
  • Minimum two-channel input.
  • Gain controls for each channel.
  • Channel equalizers, or EQ, which allow you to adjust the frequency of the treble, mids, and bass and make smoother mixes.
  • A level meter to visually monitor changes and get adjustments just right.
  • Channel upfader which controls the signal able get through and comes in especially useful when transitioning from one track to another.
  • Recording output where you can plug in recording equipment.
  • Booth output to hook up monitor speakers.
  • Master output for controlling the amp, which sends the signal to the speakers on the dance floor.
  • Crossfaders, for smooth transitions from one sound or song to another.
  • BPM counter that visually displays the tempo to match the speed of one song to the next.

It’s worth noting that a mixer can’t mix on its own. It relies on input from other gear for audio.

Few Similarities and a Lot of Differences

There are a few similarities between a mixer and a controller and they’re kind of obvious. Both are used to manipulate and mix audio. If you connect them to a sound system, both can both be used to DJ at a club and neither one can really do it all on its own.

As I said, a controller is useless without appropriate software. That said, a mixer is useless without external audio sources. Each one of these is part of a larger setup and they each play a very specific role.

Perhaps the biggest difference between these two pieces of equipment is that, unlike a controller, a mixer actually does the mixing. It doesn’t require additional software, though more advanced mixers can communicate with some software programs. More on that later.

Related Questions

What do the buttons on a DJ mixer do? There are quite a few buttons, some I covered already, some I didn’t. DJ mixers typically have a Gain knob that adjusts all of the signals coming into the mixer to the same volume; equalizers to adjust frequency for treble, midrange, and bass for smoothness, channel upfader to control how much signal is coming through, a Booth knob to set the volume for the Booth Out output, and a Master volume to adjust how loud the main output is.

What do the buttons on DJ controller do? Some of the buttons on a DJ controller are tempo control to speed up or slow down a tune, a sync button to match the tempo of two songs, track search and skip buttons to move between songs, a cue button to save the current spot in the track, pitch control to adjust speed, and pitch blend to match speed from one track to another.

Are mixers and controllers ever used together? As technology has advanced, the line between these two pieces of equipment has gotten blurry. Controllers have taken on mixer-like capabilities and mixers are evolving so that they’re more and more compatible with the software. It’s definitely possible to integrate them into the same system and, honestly, this is often the best way to go.

What software do DJ Controllers use? This is a great question because you really do need good software to work effectively with a controller. Most controllers come bundled with a basic or lite version of the company’s full software. This is a great starting point, but you’ll want to branch out to a full version as you gain more confidence and skill. If you get along with the bundled software, upgrading to a full version is usually pretty simple. You won’t have to learn a new program and can keep everything you’ve done so far. That said, if you didn’t care for what came bundled with your controller, it’s worth looking into other options. Having the right software is essential, it not only has to perform well but you also have to be able to use it effectively.

dj software
Abelton DJ Software

Which should I buy first, software or a controller? There’s no straightforward answer to this but there are a few strategies you can use to figure out the best way to go. If you want to start with the controller, it’s a good idea to get the best one you can afford so it can grow with you. Basic controllers are great for starting out but if you stick with DJing, you will want to upgrade to full software at some point and you’ll need a controller that can handle a better system. The bundled software is a good starting point and, you never know, you may end up loving it and sticking with the same program. If you want to start with software because you’re wary of buying a controller until you know what you’re going to use, do as much research as you can on what’s available. Most controllers are compatible with various software, but that’s not always the case. If you know there’s a certain software you want to use, go ahead and get a controller that you know is compatible. Keep in mind, though, it’s generally not a good idea to get a software-specific controller unless you are 100% sure you love the program that’s tied to it.