The advent of the digital DJ, and especially the ever developing MIDI controller has seen more insults dished out from the gear snobs than ever - bizarrely even from those who up to a just a short time ago were sneered at for daring to use DVS systems and CD decks. "Shitty plastic controller" and "cheap toy" litter comments across the internet. In most cases this simply isn't true at all, but in the case of ION's Discover DJ, "cheap plastic controller" is a very accurate but not at all derogatory description.
Having seen this at PLASA this year, I was gagging for a longer go on one in my own safe and warm environment. Thus UK retailer www.djkit.co.uk despatched one for my on personal pleasure.
It certainly looks like nothing out there, unless you discount the Vestax Warlord concept piece of course. If LG were to make DJ gear, this would be in their Scarlet range.
Measuring just 48x21cm, Discover DJ is indeed a cheap plastic controller. That's not meant as an insult, and perhaps "extremely cost effective MIDI controller" is more flattering. As far I can see, the only visible piece of metal is the single solitary fader stem. Thankfully, the lightness of Discover DJ doesn't seem to reflect the sturdy feel. This won't withstand the rigours of punishing club use, but that isn't the intended market anyway.
Despite the size, the emphasis is all on the jog wheels. The mixer section is decidedly thin on controls, but does have just enough to give you the minimum of features for party rocking with only brief recourse to the screen. But we're talking bare bones here.
The Jog Wheels
Discover DJ is dominated by the 6" jog wheels. They're very smooth running and entirely touch sensitive - the top, sides and even the spindle. The wheels controls the audio extremely well, but only when touched. The very moment that you let go, the audio is re-engaged at the normal speed. Obviously, this mean that spinbacks in the truest sense aren't possible - you can only rewind or fast-forward while your fingers are on the wheels.
The wheels have 3 uses:
• In pause mode, they scrub through the track quickly
• When playing with scratch mode engaged, they have a scratch effect and operate like a real turntable.
• With scratch mode off, the jog wheel will pitch bend nominally to around 8% but to a maximum of around 25%
Despite the price, the wheels are excellent. The on/off touch method takes a little time to get used to, especially for juggling (which is easy to do on Discover DJ). The one downside is the quality of the scratch sound. I'm guessing it's a MIDI resolution thing, but when you drag or push the sound with the wheel, it takes on a warbling feel. but at this price, this is an observation rather than a criticism. The overall performance and response of the jog wheels is outstanding for a cheap controller, and certainly more than good enough for casual play and for beginners too.
Here's a clip to show how well Discover DJ's jog wheels perform:
When squishing big DJ products down into a small metaphor, something has to give. You could scale down a full product proportionally, or strip out controls and reduce the feature set. Discover DJ adopts the latter philosophy, leaving just the barest minimum to allow the basics of DJing.
You get a crossfader (no fader curve but I'm told it's on the to do list), 2 band EQ with volume controls for channels and master out. No line faders here I'm afraid, but I'm quite able to live without them. And to aid the use of the supplied MixVibes Cross software, and to reduce reliance on your laptop, there is also a very simple track navigation and loading control.
The one compromise to far for me is the lack of pitch fader. Instead, you're lumbered with simple buttons to adjust the pitch in a pretty inexact way. You can of course do this on-screen, but it detracts a little from using the controller entirely hands on. Not happy about missing this fundamental of DJing off at all.
One final gripe - why is the USB cable hardwired?
Oh...one last thing for the beginners reading this. While this plugs into your computer with a single USB cable, Discover DJ needs an audio interface. This is so you can plug into your sound system and still use headphones for track cueing. The simplest will do - I used Native Instruments' Audio 2 DJ.
As Discover DJ is just a MIDI controller, it needs something to control. And that software comes in the shape of MixVibes Cross. Cross is the offspring of the original MixVibes DVS software - cross platform and reworked using the years market intelligence to make Cross as good as it can be. This is the Discover DJ edition though - cut down a little to suit the limited needs of the average buyer and tailored to work seamlessly with the hardware. And it'll only run with Discover DJ plugged in.
But this version does offer more than the hardware displays. All features in the hardware are replicated on screen, and in some ways are enhanced. For example, the lack of pitch control is made up for with full pitch sliders for both decks. More on that later.
The screen is broadly split in half - deck and mixer controls at the top and library at the bottom, but you can switch this is you like. Mixing and creativity is the order of the day here, with a huge amount of screen real estate given over to waveforms. It feels almost like overkill, as you get individual full track views, individual scalable track views (that can jump or scroll - a very nice touch) and matched beat waveforms right across the top. Put it this way - if you can't mix with all this visual assistance, then you never will.
But if you still struggle to beatmatch 2 tracks, there is also the magic sync button. Assuming that the BPM counting is accurate inside Cross, hitting sync should automagically lock beats together for you. It worked OK for me, and can be manually tweaked if you like, but it's hard to beat your hands and ears. I spent a very happy morning going through a folder of favourite tracks and had zero issues locking beats and riding long mixes.
On the subject of mixing, you need to be able to cue up your tracks properly, and Cross allow you to not only cue up the tracks you've loaded into the channels, but you can also preview tracks in your library without loading them, leaving your decks happily playing away.
Having looked at the deficiencies of the hardware from a pitch point of view, Cross more than makes up for the lack of a good physical control. Firstly, the pitch ranges are 4, 6, 8, 16, 32 and 100% and selectable per deck (that's unusual). The resolution is a ridiculously small 0.01% with a single mouse click - across ALL ranges. There are 3 pitch modes:
Speed: Just like every other pitch control - changes the speed.
Tempo: Fixes the key but changes the speed. This uses the élastique stretching algorithm and does quite a good job too. ±30% still sounds good.
Hybrid: This keylocks to around 30% (the comfortable and safe range) and then ups the key proportionally.
When you load a track into Cross, it analyses it to create the waveforms and to set the BPM. This is generally done pretty accurately, and is vital to the success of the looping function.
This works in 2 ways - you can manually define a loop, or assuming that the BPM has been calculated accurately you can make instant loops at the press of a single onscreen button. This loop is also saved for use next time, and can be broken down from 1/8 to 16 beats. The ability to click in these measures rather than turn a physical knob makes for some nice creativity.
While there are no controller on Discover DJ itself, Cross gives you 3 hot cues per track. Setting them is very simple - either while playing or fine tuned setting on the waveforms. But thanks to the extensive keystroke editing in Cross, you can assign hot cue triggering to to your keyboard on a deck basis.
These cues appear visually on the wavesforms too and are also auto-saved to the track for future use as well. A nice touch.
The key to any good DJ software is how well it handles your music. Preparation is key, so you should make sure all your files are correctly tagged. Cross gives you a number of options for using your music - iTunes integration is good and means that you use it as your way of organising your music.
But if you don't like using iTunes, you can call in your music by file, whole directories or by playlists (pls or m3u format). This gives you a head start on speed as all analysed waveform and BPM data is saved internally. You can even have different "sessions" that you can predefine with internal playlists - and save them out for loading in later. And searching is easy - you can filter out across your entire music collection, or selectively search within popular tags.
Should you prefer a more ad hoc approach, you can also work with your drive and files directly. This method lacks the frills of iTunes of Cross sessions, but it is effective for instant loading of supplied disks or USB media.
I could go into the nitty gritty of library functionality, but for a £99 controller, you can take it as read that Cross gives you more control over your music than you could ever need.
You might reasonably expect a controller of the price range to perform less well than more expensive offerings. But this old hack was very pleasantly surprised at how easy it was to install, the simplicity of use and overall performance. Being able to assign just about everything via keyboard control gives you a highly customisable experience too.
Some things took a little getting used to - the way the jog wheel works on a touch basis, and the lack of pitch slider are the main ones. But considering that Discover DJ costs just £99 and the target market is likely to be less fussy than your average 25 year DJ with prior experience of other units. Even the bubbly scratch sound doesn't bother me at all, because the mixing and juggling abilities of Discover DJ, along with its quality library function is really what Discover DJ is all about. Scratching is the most demanding technique for a deck and mixer, whereas Discover DJ is about toe dipping in the big wide world of digital DJing.
Please put aside your gear snobbery people and see Discover DJ for what it is. It's a rapidly changing world out there and aspiring DJs don't need to spend hundreds on turntables to see if DJing is for them, especially given that new vinyl is increasingly difficult to get. Now they can simply spend less than a ton on a really capable and extremely fun to use controller. And for seasoned pros, this is actually a very viable backup unit as it can also be configured via MIDI.
So looking past what this elderly DJ can label as shortcomings, Discover DJ is utterly perfect for the target market, and a lot of fun for skilled DJs too.
Well... it's all plastic but still feels good.
This is more down to the quality of your music and audio interface, but Cross does a good job in the key locking department.
Features and Implementation
The hardware offers just the barest minimum, but Cross adds looping and hot cues.
Value For Money
An utter bargain. There is simply nothing to touch this for £99.
ION's Discover DJ is the perfect way to get into digital DJing without selling a kidney. The real plus is that it actually does work. I love it.
Huge thanks to James at www.djkit.co.uk for supplying the unit.
Want some pretty pictures?