The device that's under your hand, that's playing your music, it's the very core of the Dj’s world, and has been an ever evolving market segment, covering a range of devices and mediums for as long as recorded music has existed.
For many years, the only choice for both club and mobile Dj was the turntable, as this was by far the cheapest and simplest way of mass producing music as singles, especially for non-signed groups or individuals ( white labels ). It was also the only way to easily access tracks quickly and have accurate control of the cue points when mixing.
It's also just a great medium to work with, as the 12” format of vinyl and the turntable player have a lovely ‘hands-on’ feel to them, you are physically involved in the entire process, which for many Dj’s is a major part of the appeal in the first place, and is why vinyl has simply refused to vanish like so many old technologies do.
The middle years
CD’s were around for quite a while before they truly entered the Dj arena. They had found themselves invaluable in the hi-fi world, as background music sources, or for karaoke and jukebox systems, but the players themselves were just too rudimentary for mixing purposes, as none had any features outside of just playing the disc, and that included not having any form of speed control, and would skip or jog if moved.
This changed eventually, and the CD Deck was born. The bigger brands invested heavily over the years, from what were originally modified rack mount units, to the more modern jog wheel control desktop players that really got CD where it needed to be for proper performance use.
The flagship players from Pioneer and Denon were significantly advanced in later years, and eventually it would be the digital storage and physical limitations of the CD format itself that would usher in its replacement, as using CD’s requires the players to use mechanical servo driven systems that are expensive to produce if you want them to be stable and secure against the heavy vibrations and knocks of a Dj booth, alongside the still cumbersome (though not as bad as vinyl) CD collection that you need to carry around.
The turning point
The digital age has arrived. The technology for digitally storing (and most importantly compressing) music as files has changed everything. Started with the mp3 players of the early 2000’s, the ipod, creative zen and eventually others, came the ability to carry and play an entire library of music from a small device, which has simply changed the way we use music and play music forever.
As it was with these devices, the early Dj equipment to adopt this new format featured HDD - hard disk storage, as it was the only way to store the files at that time. This had its downsides, as hard disks do not like being knocked whilst in use, so it was a gradual road of development and refinement for the first few years. The big change, and arguably the most important change of all came in the last 5 years, when the digital storage capacity of chip based (solid state) memory made a huge jump into gigabytes from megabytes. This has allowed music to be stored and played directly from solid state devices such as the ‘usb stick’, which is just simply a fantastic invention. Practically indestructible, with no moving parts, and powered by the host device, it can replace boxes of CD’s on something the size of a keyring.
Quick to utilise this new format, manufacturers retrofitted existing CD Deck designs with USB ports and file playback, which in various forms has been the go to system layout for the last few years, the ‘best of both’ approach.
Eventually though, as sales of CD’s dropped away, it became apparent that people had moved on, and so should the players. Removing the cumbersome mechanics of the CD system meant that the entire units could be free of moving parts, be made much more streamlined, have better audio circuit design, and also incorporate the mixers and other controls which always previously required a separate unit.
Present day and beyond
The media controller. This is where things currently sit. These hi-tech, feature laden systems are the present and future for both the home user and the professional. They work happily as self contained units, playing from either internal or external digital storage, or come paired with dedicated pc and mac based control system software such as Serato or Traktor, which have opened up new possibilities for sound scaping and mixing, with the ability to cue and mix from 4 songs simultaneously whilst adding effects, looping segments, sampling phrases, and use of custom ‘trigger’ controls to access sounds and functions, all based around the time tested MIDI technology.
The club units still favour a singular player design, as this avoids booths needing to be rewired or have layouts changed, and the big manufacturers cater for this market with enhanced MIDI versions of the previous generation CD/Digital decks.
For everyone else, the units are now designed as all in one solutions, with both ‘sides’ usually being represented with a form of miniature jog wheel or control platter, and the mixing controller be it 2 or 4 channel all built into the same unit, surrounded by controls for EQ, MIDI pads, pitch controls, and often now colour visual displays.
As with all technology, the prices and specifications vary from each manufacturer, and its down to the individual to decide what features they want, need, or just find desirable. Rest assured though that whatever you choose, it will allow you to have the creativity and enjoyment that's at the core of all music performance.