What does a DJ controller do? Explained

If you have ever attended a music festival or any events featuring a DJ, you would notice a machine with knobs that the DJ turns to manipulate the songs and create multiple effects.

The art of DJing started with the controllers which manipulated the songs to add more energy and depth. These functions are usually performed using a controller.

Every DJ movie will have a shot of the controller, the DJ turning knobs and a rotating disc used to manipulate the song. As simple as it may seem, it does requires a degree of skill.

You have to understand what each knob does and how it works in the background. Without that knowledge, it’s difficult to even consider performing live.

Making a mistake on the stage and freezing is possibly the worst thing that can happen to a DJ, that’s one of the reasons why some DJ’s even practice performing with their eyes closed in their rehearsal sessions. They take it very seriously.

DJ’s are opposite to the music producers. They are on stage performers of the songs which are produced inside a studio. The only thing that is common between them, is the ability to manipulate songs.

A DJ controller is used to induce all the effects needed for the DJ to control the songs that are being played. It also helps the DJ to completely switch between songs with a smooth transition. DJ controllers are also used in the studios for the manipulation of songs during live recordings.

DJing is a big part of the music industry. It is the face of music performance, where the art that is created in the studios is brought to life.

In this article, I will walk you through all the elements that are in the DJ console or controller and help you understand why they are a significant part of the DJing industry. Let’s get started.

What is a DJ controller? 

In the simplest terms, a DJ controller is a midi controller with rotating plates that represent the songs running on both discs. These rotating plates help to control the songs and move them around.

In the earlier days of DJing, we had fast forward as a button for DJ controllers. This was a rotating wheel which they turned forward and backwards.

You might have also noticed that a DJ controller has two discs. This is to control two songs at the same time. If one song is going to end, then the DJ will mix in the next song, without it feeling like the first song is finished. This transition is a great skill that new DJ’s learn at first.

DJ controllers are also used to control the mixing in the controller itself; this allows the DJ to create amazing effects which are usually utilized in songs during a recording session. Equalization and other techniques like adding reverb are also used extensively in live performances.

The DJ controller is part of the performance. It has to pair with the audio production software properly to control and modulate the songs in the set.

This is one of the reasons why midi controllers are not used in actual performances on the stage. DJ decks work much better when compared to the midi controllers.

Types of DJ controllers 

Today, there are lots of innovations in the DJ controllers that are used. They all started with mixers, worked their way to midi controllers and finally, we had mid controller pads and DJ decks.

The two main types of DJ controllers used are:

  • Midi controllers
  • DJ decks

Midi controllers

These are controllers which are hybrid keyboards used by DJs to perform songs on the stage. It’s more for live performing as a keyboardist rather than a DJ.

Midi controllers have come a long way and now they are an essential part of every music production studio.

Midi controllers are also used in live performances by music producers. If someone is starting as a DJ, they should first get a midi controller and learn the craft to its fullest and then move on to the DJ decks.

DJ Decks

These are controllers made especially for DJing. All the functionalities are tailored to make the process of DJing easier and more effective. Once you have learned the basics of mixing and mastering getting a DJ Deck is the best next step for your DJing career.

The biggest brand in DJing is Pioneer and now, Native Instruments have also started to get into producing DJing controllers. Start by investing small and learn as much as possible before you invest more in terms of gear.

How DJ controllers are used

DJ controllers are used by DJ’s to manipulate the songs using various techniques. One such technique is equalization. In the process of equalization, there are more than 8 to 10 different types of filters that can be applied. DJs use these filters to manipulate the song.

Some of these filters include low cut, high cut, and the bell curve. Apart from these filters, there are other aspects of mixing such as the effects panel where some other effects ranging from compression to delay are also used.

Compression is used to reduce the dynamics in the song that is played and then manipulated with delay and reverb to create sound effects. The songs are manipulated using knobs, encoders, jog wheels, faders, backlit buttons, touch strips, and other components.

When it comes to creating a big sound, DJ’s use limiters along with other special elements like reverb and delay to create wide natural sounds. These wide natural sounds give you the feeling of being in an arena.

The encoders will help you to effectively control the effects of equalization. The strips will help you to add the effects and take them away in a DJ controller.

How much does a DJ controller cost?

You can get an entry level DJ controller from $200 and go up to $3000. The price varies a lot based on the functions you get with the controller. Starting from the smallest and advancing, will help you learn the basics better, rather than jumping directly to an advanced DJ setup.

The skill of using the controller is more important than the controller itself.

What is a DJ controller vs mixer?

A DJ controller is a midi controller that sends signals to the audio production software while a mixer is used to control only the output volume levels and some additional functions of individual elements.

Nowadays DJ controllers come with most of the mixer functionalities already built into them.

Can you DJ with just a mixer and laptop?

Yes, you can DJ with just a mixer and laptop. It would be really challenging to perform a lot of complex effects including mixing two songs. Instead of a mixer, a midi controller would be a perfect solution for DJ’ing if you are restricted by your budget.

How much is a good DJ setup?

A good DJ setup with the software will cost you around $800. If you are aiming for a professional rig, it would cost you around $2000. The price of the equipment is irrelevant as any good DJ can bring great performance with a mediocre rig.

What does a beginner DJ need?

A beginner DJ needs audio production software suitable for live performances, as well as a DJ controller which can be used to manipulate songs on stage.

Learning the mixing and mastering manipulation with how music production works is important to be a better music producer.


DJing has made its name in the last 10 years due to music festivals all around the world. The big-name celebrities performing with famous DJ’s are also a big part of the emergence in of more DJ’s in the last 6 years.

If you are aspiring to become a DJ, the best way to stand out is by adding more skill to your game, which includes music production, mixing, and mastering.

One music producers that made it into the scene to become, arguably, the best is Steve Auki. He is still unbeaten in the number of shows he has done. The second most important aspect of DJ’ing is understanding your controller to the fullest.

If you don’t understand how it functions then you will have a hard time figuring out how the knobs work and even doing the manipulation. Understand the theory and then work on performing on stage.

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