30 juni 2015

Pioneer DDJ-SZ Serato DJ Controller



There's a new flagship Serato DJ controller in Pioneer's range. The DDJ-SZ is bigger and better specified than any Serato controller out there, with dual laptop control, built-in DVS support, standalone mixer, two different Pioneer hardware FX sections, CDJ-sized jogwheels with the same centre LEDs as "real" CDJs - basically, it's the already-well-specified Pioneer DDJ-SX on steroids. Only the Numark NS7II comes close (albeit with different strengths and weaknesses).

But is the DDJ-SZ worth basically double the price of the DDJ-SX, itself a pretty complete controller? And once you're shelling out this kind of cash (around US$2000), wouldn't you just be better going the whole way and getting a full club CDJ/DJM set-up that'll not only work with Serato, but everything else too? Hopefully we'll have answered these questions and more for you by the end of this review. As well as the text here, there are two videos at the end: A features talkthrough, and a scratching set-up video.

First impressions


Imagine you got a full-sized Pioneer club DJ set-up in front of you. Two CDJs. A proper club four-channel mixer. You push them together on the table in a row. Basically, that's it: You've got the DDJ-SZ right there, size-wise. No throwing this baby into a backpack for a quick bus journey. If you come from the school of thought that says one of the advantages of digital DJ controllers is that they have allowed digital DJs to get away from cumbersome, "full-sized" gear, this isn't going to be for you! One thing, though, is that it isn't as heavy as you may imagine (certainly nowhere near as heavy as the Numark NS7II, with its "real" turntables); the DDJ-SZ actually feels pretty hollow, which is because it basically is. In truth, a controller doesn't have to be anywhere near this big for the amount of "stuff" that goes inside it.

Like a lot of pro Pioneer gear, the DDJ-SZ doesn't shy away from being predominantly plastic in construction (all the company's CDJs are this way, although Pioneer's mixer range has remained metal-cased). That's not to say it feels cheaply made: With individually metal top-plated "units" (two identical players and the mixer), a plethora of Pioneer's best knobs, faders and back-lit RGB pads / multicoloured buttons, and two full-sized jogwheels that feature the familiar Pioneer circular LEDs in the centre (to show things like platter position, time to next cue point and so on), it feels like what it is: A 100% pro digital DJ controller. The only love/hate thing really for some will be the hard plastic buttons; familiar to Pioneer users, but to newcomers they may feel a bit cheap. The six Color FX knobs, on the other hand, are big, chunky and pleasing to use (just as well; one of the "Color FX is filters = you'll probably end up using these a lot...).

Front & Back
The front and back of the unit. Note the dual USB inputs for two laptop (Click to enlarge.)

Round the back it's all pretty simple: Two laptop USB sockets, two mics (XLR/TRS combo and TRS), four external RCA-ins (two with phono, plus a ground loop), two master outs (balanced XLR / unbalanced RCA) and a booth out (balanced TRS). A Kensington lock slot, on/off switch and a power socket complete things here.

It is impossible not to start comparing the "components" to Pioneer's "real" club gear. You soon notice that while the "CDJs" have performance pads which you don't find on CDJs, they lack any kind of displays as such and there are no USB sockets anywhere for playing music direct from a pen drive. You also realise that the mixer, although appearing similar to pro Pioneer mixers in features and looks, is actually a little cut-down, feature-wise, in comparison (as well as the reduced ins/outs as described above, the on-board FX are more limited; there are fewer bars on the LED VUs; no dedicated Record Out; no send/return for an external FX unit such as Pioneer's own RMX1000...).

However, there are definitely enough bells and whistles here to get most digital DJs excited, if you come at it from the point of view of it being a highly specified DJ controller rather than a replacement for a full Pioneer club set-up: On top of everything you'd find on the previous flagship, the DDJ-SX, a quick first glance reveals that this has a "feeling adjust" screw on the crossfader; jogwheel stiffness control (hurray! Backspins now possible, unlike the DDJ-SX); stop time adjuster; cue loop and velocity-sensitive pad options; and you can't help but immediately notice the switches for the dual laptop USB inputs. It all demands you plug it in and explore these features properly...

Setting up


It's a Serato controller. Part of the pre-requisite for being one of these is that you are nice and easy to set up. So as Mac users, it was a bit of a shock to us to see that we needed to install a separate driver to use it. There was, however, an easy procedure triggered from within Serato itself, so it wasn't difficult, and there wasn't even any need for an internet connection. Updating the firmware was a little harder as we had to download an installer from Pioneer's website: We couldn't initially get the controller recognised by the installer when we plugged it into the laptop (it was our fault - you needed to put the controller in update mode...) but eventually it worked and we were all up to date. (Hint: Whenever you buy DJ gear, always check for a firmware update; sometimes the gear will have sat in the box for months and its internal software may need a spruce up for optimum performance,) Of course, the controller comes with a full version of Serato DJ, so setting that bit up is easy, and once this is all done you're ready to go.

One additional set-up note: The controller is also a digital vinyl system ("DVS") audio interface; that means you can plug a pair of CDJs or turntables into it and control two of Serato DJ's four software decks from those using timecode vinyl, CDs (or timecode WAV on USB pen drives, as we did), in addition to controlling two decks using the jogwheels of the DDJ-SZ. So if you have existing decks and want to set it up this way, all you need to do is enable DVS within Serato's preferences and then select how you're controlling the extra decks (vinyl, CDJ..), again within the software preferences. Once done it works right away as expected. We used two CDJ-850s with Serato's timecode on USB drives, downloaded in a few seconds from Serato's website. 'Twas easy enough (just make sure you set the platter speed to 45rpm in Serato too).

In use


We're not going to discuss the basic functions that you find on all DJ controllers. Frankly, this isn't an ideal "first" controller (you don't learn to drive in a Porsche. Well, we don't round our way...) and we're assuming you know your way around a basic digital DJ controller already if you're reading this. Suffice to say all the basics are present and correct, and if you want to know a bit more about the basic functions here, you should read our Pioneer DDJ-SX review in conjunction with this one. So we played with this for the best part of week; let's hone in on the features that stood out for us, stuff that makes this controller different.

Full-size jogwheels


Jogwheel
These are large 206mm jogwheels, certainly enough real estate for a fully hands-on experience in this controller.

First, you're going to want to get the jogwheels set to your liking. With "Jog Feeling Adjust" and "Stop Time" controls you can set them as stiff or loose as you like (so you can set for just the right amount of "spinback" for you) and also control how quickly the music comes to a halt on pressing "stop". This is great, and a definite plus over the DDJ-SX.

This type of jogwheel, although it looks like a CDJ jogwheel, actually isn't. Whereas the jogwheels on CDJs are mechanical - they actually have small switches that detect pressure, which tell the unit you are wanting to "scratch" - these are conductive; they detect real, human fingers on their surfaces. It's the same technology followed in the rest of the DDJ-S range, and indeed by most DJ controllers out there (Hercules and Native Instruments are the only two brands I can think of that use some form of "mechanical" jogwheels).

The trouble is that such jogwheels can be sensitive to the electrical grounding of the controller, which can vary according to what the controller is placed on, and the nature of the mains electricity source (what else is plugged in nearby and so on), among other things. Sometimes this affects how well the jogwheels detect fingers on them. Whatever the reason, that was the case here with us and this DDJ-SZ: we had to press down a little harder than we felt necessary to engage the jogs. We managed to repeat this in two different locations, and a quick search online showed we weren't alone. Some other controllers - Vestax and some Reloop devices spring to mind - add a "sensitivity" control so you can adjust this, and we'd have liked to have seen one here, too. It meant the need to adapt our playing style to compensate for the harder finger pressure needed. Clearly some QA will have been done by Pioneer on this, so let's give the benefit of the doubt and say that this probably won't affect many users; but it did affect us.

Apart from this issue, the jogs are great. If you've always bemoaned the fact that there isn't a single DJ controller out there with joghweels the same size as those on CDJs (we actually thought them a little bigger than on the CDJ-850), you'll love these. We particularly liked the centre section, that is to all intents and purposes is identical to that on a Pioneer CDJ, with the jog position marker, track progress, and even a countdown-to-next-cue feature to help you with your mixing. We found it a bit "laggy", even with the firmware update designed to improve this (it helps if you have the latency really low and screen updates set to maximum), but it worked well nonetheless.

Dual USBs


Whole articles have been written about switching from one digital DJ to another in a performance situation. The DDJ-SZ makes it much, much simpler, even if you're both digital DJs and so you need to physically unplug one laptop and plug another in. (This, of course, is where the music has to stop usually, or more normally, where you mix in to an analogue source for a track or two as the switch is made. Not so here...)

Switches
The dual USB inputs of the DDJ-SZ lets you connect two laptops at the same time, switching between them as needed. Great for back to back DJ performances. Just don't forget that the headphone outputs are identical, so you'll still have to take turns cueing with headphones.

The reason the DDJ-SZ makes this so simple is that there are two USBs for attaching laptops at the back of the unit. Each has a button on the top to assign it to "A" or "B". Basically, imagine drawing a line right down the middle of the software screen and down the middle of the DDJ-SZ too. The laptop and software assigned to one side controls the left-hand side of the screen / controller, and that assigned to the other side controls the right-hand side - you choose which laptop controls which side. On the respective software screens, the deck/s you're not controlling simple say "in use" in them. By doing this, it's child's play for one DJ to mix out of another - even for both DJs to play "back to back".

We found it doubly fun on plugging in a DVS system too - see below. This was responsible for a good few hours wasted here when we realised how simple it was to do: The novelty of having two copies of Serato controlled by the same controller was too much to not play around on for a bit! Did I mention that with the right mappings, you can even have Traktor and Virtual DJ (and other brands of software too) DJs using the unit simultaneously as well? It's true, we tested and proved it - see the accompanying video...
It would have been even more fun had they somehow managed to incorporate two headphone / cue systems as well, which wouldn't have been too hard, as this system already has two independent sound cards; this would have made true back-to-back DJing even simpler. But it's a huge bonus as it is and definitely a feature to be applauded.

Native Serato DVS


A DVS - "digital vinyl system" - is where you use special CDs, vinyl records or a track on a USB drive to "control" your DJ software. The track itself sounds like computer code, but your DVS software decodes it. This kind of system was originally developed to allow DJs to use traditional DJ gear to control DJ software, and is still very popular, but one of the big minuses of it is that the big brands insist on your using their audio interfaces as part of the set-up. The Pioneer DDJ-SZ is, at the time of writing, the only Serato DJ controller that eschews all of that. Plug in your turntables or CDJs, load them up with timecode, and with the click of just a few settings, you're off. This way, you can have true four-deck, four mixer channel control over all four decks on Serato.

What's more, the centre sections of the jogwheels show you what's going on on your CDJs or vinyl decks too - track progress, time to cue, "vinyl position" etc - true hybrid stuff! Plug in two laptops, four decks and two DJs, and you'll yourself instantly understand why we wasted so much time dual DJing across four decks...

Hardware effects


Faders and Hardware FX
There are two hardware effect units on the DDJ-SZ: Color FX on the left, and Oscillator FX on the right. Color FX include effects that affect your audio like echo and filter, while Oscillator FX act more as a sound effects that you can trigger during your performance such as a cymbal and an airhorn.

The Pioneer DDJ-SZ has a standalone mixer, of course, meaning you can plug real record decks, CDJs or other sources through it and mix with just those, or more usually, mix those with your computer sources too (when you switch from one to another, it takes no more than half a second to pass control across). Alongside this, Pioneer has provided two real hardware FX units. By "hardware", we mean they're not controlling your computer effects (you can do that for the software channels, of course, directly from the DDJ-SZ's effects area), but rather layering built-in effects over the top of anything you want - vinyl, CDJs, computer, microphone... In that respect, it's just like plugging your controller into a spare channel on a club's mixer, then using that mixer's built-in effects to add a little extra something to your sounds, independently of your software. Let's look at what's on offer:
Sound Color FX
These are the four blue buttons to the left of the channel upfaders, labelled "Echo", "Jet", "Pitch" and "Filter". You simply turn your chosen effect on by touching it (its light flashes to show you); it is then active across all the channels. To use it on a particular channel, you turn the big silver knob (they're the six silver knobs across the middle of the controller) in one direction or the other from the centre click (the centre click being "off"). Think of that knob like a single-knob filter, with three extra effect options. "Pitch" gives you a detuned version of the sound, "Jet" is an off-phase effect, "Echo" does what it says on the tin (it's post-line fader, so will echo out if the deck is turned off or the line fader turned down - the crossfader, on the contrary, will stop it dead). Finally, there's a straight combo HPF/LPF filter - the classic "one-knob filter" effect. Frankly, this is the effect you're going to use the most here and it works exactly as expected, although we did feel it didn't go quite to the "end" of the high pass / low pass curve when fully activated in either direction.
Oscillator
Not strictly effects in that they add something new to the sound, these four buttons (the red ones to the right of the line faders) are "Noise", "Cymbal", "Siren" and "Horn". They are switchable between decks 3 and 4 or applicable across the master output. There are two knobs, one to control the "volume" of the effect, and one to control a set parameter. "Noise" is a white noise effect, "Cymbal" is a reverse cymbal sound, and "Siren" is like a fast police siren. A single press on the button runs the effect for a short while, holding the button keeps it perpetual. The only one where this isn't the case is "Horn", which plays only once. And once is once too many in my view! Yup, it's the utter-cheesy, instantly recognisable, Virtual DJ horn, and in my opinion, wants assigning to the bin now and forever. However did it make it onto a pro mixer?

Overall, both these sets of effects are typical Pioneer: Good sounding, pragmatically designed (only a bit of control, but it's all you'll likely want with these sounds), and easy to use - designed to augment your performance, not get in the way of it. It's a bit of a shame there isn't the breadth of FX on show on the company's "real" mixers, but what is here is good and useful. (Except that fog horn. Why!?) Maybe having firmware-switchable FX here would be a nice addition for the future, as these are quite genre specific. (Plus there's that foghorn wasting one of the four slots...)

State-of-the-art performance pads


The DDJ-SZ has eight velocity-sensitive performance pads that can be assigned a variety of functions. In contrast to the DDJ-SX, the pads here have coloured LED backing (handy for triggering colour-coded hot cues without having to look at your computer, for instance).
The DDJ-SZ has eight velocity-sensitive performance pads that can be assigned a variety of functions. In contrast to the DDJ-SX, the pads here have coloured LED backing (handy for triggering colour-coded hot cues without having to look at your computer, for instance).

We all know performance pads, right? The current "must-have" on any high-end DJ controller? Typically it's eight pads for each deck, usually with pride of place underneath the jogwheels, the best having RGB backlighting to instantly show you what's what. Those here on the DDJ-SZ are certainly among the best, being pretty highly featured, and they work great, so I'll just run through the specs: You've got dual function on each (there's a "shift" layer), so Hot Cue also has "Cue Loop" (triggering the same cue point, it will loop to whatever the autoloop is set to); "Roll" can also trigger saved loops; "Slicer" has "Slicer Loop", and "Sampler" has "Velocity Sampler" - basically, the pads get to show off their velocity sensitivity and thus are great when employed as drum pads.

Combined with the slot-assignable loop engine, you've got a decent amount of creative control here, and these performance pads feel excellent. It's great, too, that you can alter the colours of cues to suit whatever you choose in Serato DJ - so you could assign one colour to first cue point, one to break, one to outro etc - your choice. Top marks, then, although there are still many who never or rarely use such functions and who would I am sure prefer the layout to be more akin to a standard CDJ - using the space released by having no/smaller pads to add some kind of LED display, for instance...

Other stuff


Of the general stuff that it is worth mentioning, we thought the metering was very good (10-bar VUs per channel plus 10-bar stereo VUs for the output). It's not so easy to replace the crossfader as you can with the DDJ-SX, which has the screws right there on the faceplate; having said that, the crossfader is contactless / magnetic ("Magvel") so ought to last a long time. (We've got a separate scratch set-up video at the end of this piece if you're a scratch DJ wondering how good this unit will be for you). On our test unit, there was a bit of white noise on the headphones when we plugged them in (it was the first thing we noticed); not sure if that's down to the grounding, the unit or something else weird about our particular set-up, but it was there, even with the levels right down.

Conclusion


So, let's consider the case for this controller. It's the best of the best. You want the top end? This is it. Go and buy it. You can't get any flashier, but it is also packed with genuine and innovative features to make your DJing easier, more fun and more exciting. Dual USB is awesome for easy DJ switchovers (with the right mappings, it even works with Traktor, Virtual DJ etc too alongside Serato, as we mentioned). The DDJ-SZ looks absolutely the part in any situation too (this stuff is important), and it has all the flexibility you could possibly want with regards external sources. Not only that, it's a native DVS unit with Serato, meaning no cumbersome audio interfaces. As far as performance controls go, it has it all, missing only motorised platters (a la NS7II, and arguably a specialist requirement anyway) from the list of dream features most ambitious digital DJs mention when discussing their ideal controller. There's really little out there that surpasses this in pretty much any area.
DDJ SZ Angle
Professional looks, quality, and feature set at the expense of size, weight, and a high price tag. Is it the right controller for you? Only you can decide, but we've hopefully made it easier for you to do so.

So what about the case against it? Well, firstly it's huge. Really, many would say controllers just don't have to be this big, and you lose a whole load of portability. It's also really very expensive against even Pioneer's own DDJ-SX, which is no bargain itself, but this is nearly double the price. You're getting those extra features, sure - but do you really need them? Nobody called the DDJ-SX out for being underpowered, after all. However, at the same time, the DDJ-SZ lacks a lot of what a Pioneer club set-up has: No rekordbox support or displays of any kind for playing from USB (the Pioneer XDJ-R1 has these things, but is basically a consumer controller). This latter point is no doubt so Pioneer doesn't cannibalise its own CDJ2000/DJM-900 sales, because such a set-up would cost you more than twice the price of the DDJ-SZ - but how great would it be to have a controller like this, minus CD slots, with CDJ-2000-style displays and USB drive/rekordbox compatibility? A true digital all-rounder?

The biggest competitor here is the Numark NS7II. Not quite as big but much heavier, the NS7II has those "proper" rotating platters like turntables, and is a joy to DJ on and use, being in many ways very similar to this controller. What it lacks is native Serato DVS support meaning you'd need an extra sound card if you want to use your external decks in DVS mode with it, and the genuinely useful dual USB for two laptops. Both controllers attract the "why so big and heavy?" criticism, though.

For me, the very best all-round Serato controllers for most digital DJs looking for pro-level gear continue to be the Reloop Terminal Mix 2 & 4, The Pioneer DDJ-SR and DDJ-SX, the Vestax VCI-380 and VCI-400, and the Denon DJ MC6000 Mk2. Your choice among these - but all of them have power, portability and features aplenty. Which would be for you would depend upon the exact mix of features you're after, but all get the balance more or less right for the average Serato DJ.


But that's just it - the Pioneer DDJ-SZ isn't aimed at the average Serato DJ. It's a big wet dream of a controller. It's for the person who has everything, the person who wants to best, but also for the person who has no interest in moving past DJ controllers and into "true" club gear. Some smaller venues with a set roster of DJs may even look to install such a controller as their main gear, but in truth, it's the ultimate pro DJ's "second" controller, the ultimate prosumer unit, or the biggest, baddest mobile DJ's digital controller imaginable. If big means better, the DDJ-SZ has it nailed. Just don't fall into the trap of thinking you need a controller like this - you can digital DJ perfectly well on controllers of a fraction of the price. However, that doesn't stop the DDJ-SZ being highly desirable. Now, when do you think the limited edition platinum model is coming out...?

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