Review: Pioneer DDJ-SX DJ Controller
After months of available stock disappearing from the the warehouse immediately, we finally get a look at the Pioneer DDJ-SX…
There are some bits of gear whose popularity exceeds all expectations, regardless of how high those expectations are. The Pioneer DDJ-SX is one such product.
The demand for these DJ controllers meant that it is only now, nearly 10 months after their launch that we’ve actually managed to get one in our hands. The rest have gone straight out to customers.
The DDJ-SX has been one of the most eagerly awaited controllers ever made. What is it like in-use? Well, here’s our review to help to answer that question…
Perhaps the reason for the huge demand for the Pioneer DDJ-SX was that this appeared to be the first Pioneer controller that delivered the sort of design and build that CDJ users were used to, but in a DJ controller. It was also the very first controller to be designed for use with Serato’s new DJ software DJ package.
From the outset, it is very clear that Pioneer has designed this with the pro user in mind, but also designed in very close collaboration with Serato. The unit oozes quality, and has all of the pro touches you’d expect (super-smooth jog-wheels with sensitivity adjustment, balanced outputs, four-channel operation), but closely mirrors Serato DJ’s interface.
It’s a bigger unit than most, which might cause a few problems in small DJ booths, but still seems significantly smaller than, say, a pair of CDJ-2000nexus and a mixer, for example.
Still, this extra size is far from wasted. Every inch is put to good use, and with features such as the large CDJ-style jog-wheels, four-channel mixer and ability to input external devices, it’s clear that this was a very considered move. Plus, despite the size, it still only weighs in at 5.8kg.
When Pioneer unveiled the prototype DDJ-SX at BPM last year, the first thing that struck me was the quality of construction (given that it was a non-functioning prototype, well, you couldn’t really judge much else…)
This was a cut above previous Pioneer controllers. Though it was a similar combination of plastic back with a metal fascia, everything felt more solid. Plus, the jog-wheels were a cut above anything Pioneer had previously equipped to a controller.
I’m pleased to say that the finished article has the same air of quality. In addition to the above, the rubberised knobs are tactile, and feel very firmly seated, channel faders are smooth, and the crossfader should keep even those who will be using the unit for scratch and turntablism techniques happy.
Toggle button controls are plastic, but have welcome ‘click’ when pressed- always useful when noise levels are high.
The SX’s trigger pads deserve particular praise. These have the feel of the best trigger pad controllers- firm but with enough ‘bounce’ to easily get expressive, tight control.
One of the key, new features of the Pioneer DDJ-SX is, as you might have gathered, the jog-wheels. These are a similar size to those found on CDJs, and have a central ‘on-jog display’, which provides track position and playback status- very useful indeed.
These are capacitive in design – nothing new there. However, unlike other platters of this type, the SX has a jog-wheel sensitivity control. Set to its most sensitive in vinyl mode, the playing track will stop before you even touch the platter; set to the lowest setting, it won’t stop at all. This means that any DJ should be able to find their ideal setting according to playing style and preference.
Behind the sensitivity, the SX boasts the ‘industry’s shortest control latency’. Though I couldn’t tell you whether this is true or not, I can certainly attest to their responsiveness. When running with low audio buffer size, the DDJ-SX is easily one the most responsive controllers of this kind that I’ve used.
The 16 performance pads are the other key design feature of the SX. These operate in four different modes, to correspond with Serato DJ’s functionality. Hot Cue mode allows you to trigger eight different cue points per-track.
In sampler mode you can trigger samples via Serato’s SP-6 sampler. Four sample banks can be chosen from, each with four available sample slots. Loading samples is one of the few things that you need a pointing device, like a track pad or mouse, for.
Roll mode puts the pads into loop roll mode. Here, loops can be assigned to pads, and loop lengths selected. Hold downing down a pad will cause the loop to be played continuously until the pad is released.
This can be a powerful tool when used with Serato’s slip mode. In slip mode, the track continues to be played ‘in the background’ whilst loop rolls, or scratches are applied, so that when you stop, the track simply picks up where it would have been had it just been left to play- very useful indeed.
Slicer mode takes this a step further, by slicing a section of a loaded track into sections, and assigning these chunks of audio to the pads. Again, you can assign length, and the section will be looped as long as you hold the pad down. This is also particularly effective when used in slip mode.
Quickly locating a particular section of a track can be a bit of a task within software, which is why Pioneer have included a needle search strip at the top of each the SX’s ‘decks’. Here, the strip corresponds to the entire track; the left is the start, the right is the end. You can very quickly swipe your way to a particular point using this neat tool.
Dual Deck Mode
The Pioneer DDJ-SX is capable of controlling all four of Serato DJ’s decks. Each deck has a separate physical channel on the mixer, with jog-wheel control switchable via the buttons to the left: decks 1 & 3 on the left platter, and 2 & 4 on the right.
Also located with the deck select buttons is the ‘dual deck’ button. This allows each set of deck controls to control two decks simultaneously. This is pretty inspiring in use, allowing from some incredibly dramatic edits, with relative ease.
Pioneer has produced some of the world’s most popular pro mixers over the years, and the SX’s mixer shows this heritage. Each of the four channel faders is smooth and robust, with 10 segment metering. Cue buttons on each channel make setting up a headphone mix easy.
Each channel also has a 3-band EQ. Though kill-switches for each band are a bit of an omission, each band acts as rotary-kill. A filter control at the bottom of each channel can be swept between low pass and high pass, while independent FX buttons for each channel make assigning Serato’s two FX units straightforward.
For those who already have DJ players that they would like to integrate into the DDJ-SX, the mixer also has four external inputs, two switchable between PC, microphone or CD level, two between PC, phono and line (PC being playback from the host machine).
In practice, these work well (though I didn’t use them extensively). However, there can be a bit of a gain jump between software tracks and external tracks. As long as you’re aware of this, it shouldn’t be a problem though- just be sure to keep the level of ‘internal’ tracks down.
The internal audio interface seems great. There aren’t really any specs available (strangely), but it sounds really nice: dynamic, with plenty of detail. It also seems to perform at low latency without any issues.
Software – Serato DJ
As this is a review of the Pioneer DDJ-SX, and not Serato DJ, I don’t want to get too bogged down with this. However, as this is included as part of the package, and the hardware was designed around it, it’s hard to ignore.
Serato’s interface is beautifully uncluttered- which win over many DJs- with superb responsiveness, stability and sound. The new sampler is integrated well, too.
One of the really nice additions to the Serato armoury, however, is the FX. These are powered by leading software FX developers, Izotope. This pedigree really shows- they sound incredible.
Software is very much a personal thing, to a certain extent. However, you can be assured that with Serato DJ, you are getting a professionally featured package, with some of the best integrated FX available, and one of the cleanest, easy-to-read interfaces of any package available.
Big, and beautiful…?
The Pioneer DDJ-SX had a lot to live up to, in many respects. In some ways, it wasn’t simply following in the footsteps of the controllers preceding it. People were expecting the kind of impact that CDJs had on the DJ world.
In many respects, it achieves just that. There are few, if any, controllers that can match its pro-quality feel- there are none that have neat touches like its jog-wheel displays.
The integration between software and hardware is seamless, and everything sounds great, and works perfectly. Plus, it says both Pioneer, and Serato on the box- pretty reassuring, no matter how you look at it.
The only thing that might put a few people off is the size. Yes, it’s bigger than many controllers, but it’s by no means the biggest around, and it’s far from the heaviest. It is clearly designed for pro use, however; every fader, pot and pad is fitted with purpose, and long-term use in mind. Add in the external inputs, and potentially you have the hub of a larger club install…
In conclusion, the Pioneer DDJ-SX is not the smallest of its kind on the market, or the cheapest, but it is without doubt one of the best. If you DJ professionally with a computer, or simply want to have a truly pro-level DJ Controller and software solution, you owe it to yourself to give the SX an audition.