Last Updated on October 5, 2021.
Whenever I attend a musical event these days, I see DJ controllers everywhere – they are very common on the DJ circuit, and this can often lead people to believe that you cannot DJ without one. Controllers can also be expensive and complicated, leading beginners to wonder whether there are alternatives to DJing with a controller.
So, can you DJ without a controller? DJing without a controller is absolutely possible – DJs have been using turntables and other musical hardware for decades, and controllers are simply modern innovations that allow you to control more musical elements through digital software. In addition to traditional DJ setups still being an option, it is also possible to use digital DJ software through your computer without the need for a hardware controller.
What does a DJ controller do?
A DJ controller is essentially a piece of hardware that allows you to control digital parameters during a DJ session through a system known as ‘MIDI’.
The controller will feature a variety of dials, knobs, and buttons that can be MIDI-mapped to parameters on digital DJ software, allowing you to change musical elements of your mix in real-time from the controller.
Whilst the range of built-in features within a controller vary greatly, every DJ controller that I have encountered will at the minimum contain a platter wheel, a crossfader, faders, EQ dials and volume faders.
These are the bare bones of a traditional DJ setup, but most will also include effects dials, in addition to some additional buttons that can be used for sampling.
This hardware will then be paired with DJ software which can help automate transitions, beatmatch tracks, and overall enhance and simplify traditional DJ workflows. I have actually seen some entry-level DJ controllers on the market for as little as $50, but professional CDJ controller setups could set you back as much as $5,000.
Most DJ software can be accessed for free in some shape or form, but professional licenses will generally require a monthly or one-time payment.
Can you DJ without a controller?
Whilst many new DJs may be misled into believing that you cannot DJ without a DJ controller, this is simply not the case. DJs have been mixing and scratching records for decades without controllers, with the software-hardware combination only really coming about in the ‘00s.
DJs primarily used to use standard direct drive turntables combined with a DJ mixer, but those who sought more flexibility and creativity within their setup also used hardware samplers and even CD controllers.
With that being said, I personally prefer to DJ with software and a controller – they facilitate excellent DJ workflows, flexible interfacing, and generally augment your abilities as a DJ. Many old-school DJs that I have interacted with will often dislike DJ controllers as they claim that they take away the analog and hands-on nature of traditional turntables.
However, I don’t think this is true – there are plenty of hardware and software combinations that will allow you to augment the analog experience of DJing with vinyl whilst conserving the traditional experience.
In my opinion, it all comes down to whether you want to use computers or not. Someone who has grown up using traditional turntables and analog hardware may prefer to stick with this simply because it is what they know best.
However, if you grew up using computers like me and appreciate the flexibility that digital software-hardware interfacing can accomplish, then DJ controllers are a great option. There’s no right or wrong choice, but you absolutely can DJ without using a controller, even if you are using DJ software.
Mixing software you can use without a controller
Even though digital mixing software generally works best when used through a hardware controller, this isn’t always necessary. Sometimes I do not have access to a hardware controller, but I don’t let this get in my way – I simply mix using my laptop controls.
There’s a variety of different mixing software out there that can be used without the use of a controller. I’ve compiled a table of my top five options, including their license types and prices.
The features and compatibility within each license vary greatly, so make sure you do your own research to see what you are paying for. One thing is consistent throughout these packages – all of the software can be used without the need for a hardware controller, but it certainly helps to have one.
|Software||License + Price|
|Virtual DJ||Virtual DJ: FreeVirtual DJ Pro: £18 per Month of £275 One-time PurchaseVirtual DJ Business: £91 Per MonthVirtual DJ Business Full: £91 Per Month|
|Traktor||Traktor DJ 2: FreeTraktor Pro 3: £89 One-time Purchase|
|Rekordbox||Rekordbox: FreeRekordbox Core: £9.99 per MonthRekordbox Creative: £14.99 per MonthRekordbox Pro: £29.99 Per Month|
|Mixxvibes Cross||Cross DJ 4: $49.90 One-time PurchaseCross DJ 4 Pro: $99.90 One-time Purchase|
|Dex 3||PCDJ Dex 3 $149 One-time Purchase|
Overall, you absolutely can DJ without a controller – DJs have been doing this since the beginning by using turntables and other musical hardware. You can even mix tracks using DJ software without using a controller simply by using your mouse and keyboard, but I have to say that I wouldn’t recommend this.
I do know some people that enjoy this workflow, but personally, I need either turntables or a hardware DJ controller if I am going to mix and scratch at my best.
Ultimately, I would recommend getting a DJ controller if you are committed to DJing through your computer – it’s going to help you augment the amount of detail that you can mix with when performing digitally.
However, if you’re an old-school DJ and would simply prefer to stick to your turntables and vinyl, there is nothing wrong with that. It’s still worth checking out software and controller options that will help you add more to your turntable setup, but it’s certainly not essential.