From the day the iPod was introduced, aficionados have fantasized about using it for DJing. The portable, high-capacity iPod is the antithesis of the turntablists’ crate of vinyl and heavy players and mixer. But even though fans now hold “iPod DJ” parties in clubs worldwide, serious DJs scoff at the iPod’s lack of features essential to cueing songs and matching beats. So Numark received a good deal of attention when it unveiled its specialized iPod DJ mixer, the iDJ, earlier this year. Had Numark found a way to solve the iPod’s shortcomings, even if only for casual DJs?
Two iPods and a Microphone
The iDJ is essentially a combination of a DJ mixer and an iPod dock. As a mixer, it’s fairly typical of basic 2-channel DJ models. Two inputs can be combined into a single output via a horizontal cross-fader. Switched to line/phono mode, either input is capable of accepting a line-level output from a turntable, CD player, computer, or non-iPod MP3 player, though the iDJ makes little sense if you’re not using it with iPods. The iDJ also has typical DJ-style, 3-band (treble, mid, and bass) equalization (EQ) controls, as well as phono amps and grounds for connecting turntables. There’s even a mic input on the front (though, unfortunately, it’s a 1/4” jack rather than an XLR). On paper, at least, the iDJ is a decent mixer.
What makes the iDJ unique is its iPod docking and control features. You can connect two iPods via standard dock connectors, accommodating third-generation, fourth-generation, mini, nano, photo/color, and the new video-capable iPods. (Note that older models and iPod shuffles can’t be docked; you could connect them via minijack, but that defeats the purpose of buying the iDJ.) Each dock connector charges its iPod and feeds audio directly into the mixer, bypassing the iPod’s headphone jack. This results in an immediate, noticeable boost in audio fidelity over trying to amplify the headphone output of the iPod, and saves you from having to worry about power (or volume levels).
The iPod connections serve other functions, too. USB2 ports on the back of the mixer let it double as a dock for your computer, so you can transfer music to your iPod from your computer while it’s connected. There’s even an S-video output that lets you “project” the video signal from photo- and video-capable iPods, though it’s connected only to the left slot. Both of these features could appeal to users wanting to dock two iPods at home.
Push the Buttons
The big draw of the iDJ is its large control buttons on the top face of the unit. Backlit in blue, these make it much easier to control your iPods in a darkened DJ booth. An enormous play button is accompanied by menu, next/previous, and enter buttons, plus a large scroll wheel, so you don’t have to fumble for the small controls on the front of the iPod. The combination works well, though you’ll need a new iPod to take advantage of all the features. If you don’t have an iPod with a “click wheel” (fourth-generation or later, including the mini and nano), only the play, previous, and next buttons work, drastically reducing the appeal of this feature. There’s also an automatic “fader start” feature that pauses and unpauses each iPod as you move the cross-fader. This feature is apparently targeted at novices; I found it to be a clumsy means of cueing. Fortunately, it can be switched off.
There’s no question that the iDJ’s design is a big improvement over trying to plug iPods into a conventional mixer. In fact, the form factor of the iDJ is its greatest attribute. Its plastic and metal design is extremely compact, attractive, and lightweight. The iDJ would look great on a desk or in a living room, and easily stows in a bag for traveling. Dual line outputs let you easily record mixes.
Unfortunately, even for casual DJing and beginning DJs, the novelty of the iDJ quickly fades into frustration. Much of the fault is Apple’s: The iPod simply isn’t designed as a DJ player. The iPod (or any other MP3 player, for that matter) has most of the same problems plugged into the iDJ as it does when used on its own. You can’t scratch it, as you can a similarly-priced DJ CD player. You can’t adjust pitch, meaning you can’t match beats, eliminating most DJ techniques. You can’t even cue songs easily for decent-sounding cross-fades, since the iPod’s cueing interface skips several seconds at a time. Scrolling through a music library is made a little easier by adding large controls, but it’s nowhere near as easy as using any of a number of DJ-focused software applications.
You might be able to overlook some of these problems by cueing songs using the headphone output, hitting pause, and then hitting play again. For that, basic mixing is possible, but with even a modest investment in DJ CD players (many of which can play MP3 CDs, as well), other DJ devices are much more capable.
The iDJ is also somewhat disappointing as a mixer. The scroll wheel is fun to use, but most of the controls feel flimsy and inconsistent. The sound output is loud, but the iDJ’s three-band equalizer compares poorly to those of real DJ mixers, and the iDJ lacks kill switches. Worse, the non-adjustable cross-fader curve sounds raw, making amateurish cross-fades inevitable.
In contrast, even an inexpensive dual-CD/mixer combination or a laptop running DJ software can accomplish much more than the iDJ and a pair of iPods. A copy of Native Instruments’s Traktor DJ Studio (available for Mac and Windows), for example, costs less than the iDJ alone, but provides real scratching, accurate cueing, pitch control, EQ with kill switches, extra effects, and many other features. It’s arguably easier to DJ with software, especially with automatic beat synchronization features; certainly, with an investment of time, you can sound a lot better. The one feature you lose is support for copy-protected files from the iTunes Music Store, though even this is supported by MegaSeg on the Mac. If you prefer hardware, basic two-CD players with included mixers can be had for about the price of an iDJ and two new iPods. The bottom line is that because of flaws in the iDJ and limitations of the iPod itself, DJing with an iPod is less enjoyable than DJing with computer software or other dedicated DJ hardware.
Numark has provided a glimpse of what portable player DJing could look like, but the results are likely to satisfy only a limited audience. Assuming you already have two compatible iPods and want to be able to dock them at home in a DJ-style mixer, or if you’re looking to hold parties where friends come with iPods to try mixing, the iDJ could fit the bill. However, even amateur DJs might want to consider other options. You’ll find that an investment of time learning hardware or software with more features will result in better-sounding mixes and much more enjoyment. Unless Apple updates the iPod with DJ features, DJing on an iPod just isn’t as fun (or effective) as using dedicated DJ players, computer mixing software, or just good old-fashioned vinyl.