Controllerism — The New Tools of The DJ Trade

With a few casual touches of the plastic piano keys, Keith Garnant (known to many as KAGE) perfectly recreates the opening notes to Daft Punk’s Something About Us.

Akai MPK49. Image Courtesy of Akai.

It’s not because he has the exact synth that they used or access to insider knowledge — he simply has an Akai MPK49, a MIDI-controller which emulates the functions of a synthesizer and drum machine when connected to a computer with audio software. With the combination of his equipment and access to music production programs like Ableton Live, Garnant (like many contemporary producers) is able to create or replicate any sound from any synthesizer at a cost much lower than owning even one synthesizer.

“I use it not for sampling, but for using multiple live instruments — with a lot of buttons and faders and knobs that can adjust the effects and control those various instruments,” Garnant says of his MPK49. “I love [it] because no one can tell what I’m doing exactly… I have a lot of reverb, delay, hi-pass and lo-pass filters, oscillation… lots of effects that make a crazy noise just by turning a knob.”

Controllers have fundamentally changed the entire workflow for many musicians, particularly DJs and those who work within electronic music. To many, the introduction of MIDI controllers signaled the birth of a more simplified approach to the creation and performing of music — simplicity which carries with it a bevy of implications.

Within the DJ community, the rise in popularity of controllers prompts ire from many traditionalists, who maintain that controllers remove a great deal of the tactile functions of and skills necessary to DJ.

“I think there’s a valid argument in saying that technology has made DJing a lot easier,” Garnant says. “I think along with that argument you also have the idea that technology has created a huge expansion of what is possible in a live mix.”

Traktor S4. Image courtesy of DJ Tech Tools.

Perhaps most notably, controllers (when paired with DJ software like Traktor, Ableton, or Virtual DJ) give the DJ the functionality of instantly ‘syncing’ the tempos of the different tracks they play, a process previously handled exclusively by skilled hands and ears. No longer is it necessary for the DJ of today to have the skills of counting tempo manually or having an ear for pitch — the computer now handles those things for the DJ to focus their attention on other elements of their set.

While some argue such ease takes the fun and ‘magic’ from DJing, others feel differently. Jordan Arneal (known on stage as Tr4kh4x or Trakhax) says that his Traktor s4, which streamlines all functions of DJing into a singular controller, allows him to expand and do more as a DJ, being that matching pitch and tempo is now made substantially easier.

“Everything is incorporated into one package… You can plug [the master output] into anything, your soundcard is incorporated, along with all of your controls for the program — including crossfader and volume faders — right there” Arneal says of the S4.

Akai APC40. Image courtesy of Ableton

For others still, controllers mean a whole new world of customizable DJ setups, where any knob or fader can be assigned to control any function of a DJ software. Dan Juhl, who DJs as Colossus and is one half of semi-famed Iowa City DJ duo Electrocity, currently uses an Akai APC40 in conjunction with a Traktor Kontrol X1 to control his Traktor-based DJ setup. The APC40 was originally developed for exclusive use with Ableton Live, but like many MIDI controllers, it can be manually reconfigured for use with any program.

“For me, it makes so much more sense to play music like this (on a computer),” Juhl says. “I listen to music on computers already, so it makes more sense for me to approach it in that fashion as opposed to using some circular plastic disc that I’m not as familiar with… With the APC 40, I can use samples and assign the buttons to anything I want — I wouldn’t know how to do that, or manage that on other systems.”

The future for controllerism looks bright — there is no doubt that vinyl, as the medium of choice for the DJ, is on the decline. Between the lower cost of investment, the remarkably less-steep learning curve, and the rapidly advancing functionality of controllers, it’s a seeming no-brainer to DJ newcomers that controller-based DJing is the new industry standard.

Check out our audio interview with KAGE, discussing how he uses controllers in his music workflow!


Also peep our annotated live mix of Tr4kH4x! He’s does all of this in REAL time!

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