Turntables Vs. DJ Controller: A Comparison

Do you want to know the differences between turntables Vs. DJ controllers? You are in the right place. This article compares both equipment types, weighing their pros and cons, so you have a clear idea of which is beneficial to you.

Turntables and DJ controllers are tools that allow DJs to mix and play music. However, there are many differences between both that make either of them a preferable option. Some of these differences include their setup and required skills.

To explore the differences between both types of DJ’ing equipment, we first need to break down each one and the components that make them unique. Without further ado, let’s get right into it.

What Are Turntables?

A turntable is a playback machine used by DJs to play pre-recorded music. The terms “turntable” and “record player” are sometimes used interchangeably, especially when vinyl records are involved, which could confuse newbies.

Although both are record players with a lot of similarities, they are also very different. For one, a record player is designed solely for listening to music, while you can use a DJ turntable for mixing, beat matching, and scratching music.

A DJ turntable uses a needle (attached to the cartridge) to pick up music carved into the grooves of vinyl, then transmits this sound as an audio signal to an external preamp, amplifier, and speakers to play the music out loud.

In the mid-’90s, the use of DJ turntables evolved to include scratching, where the DJ quickly moved the vinyl record backward and forward. This series of sound effects became known as turntablism and was created by hip-hop DJs. (source)

Since the invention of more digital methods for listening to music, turntables have evolved to become more digital. Digital turntables can emulate this spinning and even produce more sound effects.

The Different Features of A Turntable

A turntable has different key features that give it a wide range of functionality. These additional features include:

1. Platter And Tonearm

The platter and tonearm are essential for a turntable to function. Without them, music playback would not be possible.

A large percentage of the turntable’s surface consists of the platter, which can be driven by a motor directly or indirectly, using a belt.

To use a turntable, place the vinyl record on the platter, then delicately place the cartridge (attached to the tonearm) on the vinyl surface. The platter spins the vinyl at constant speeds while the cartridge reads and plays back music.

Depending on the preference of the DJ, there are several types of cartridges available for use on the turntable.

2. Motor And Torque

A turntable’s torque is the power with which the platter turns, and it is controlled by the efficiency and strength of the motor. As mentioned earlier, there are two types of motors – belt-driven and direct-driven.

Belt-driven motors are indirectly connected to the platter via a belt and have a lower torque than direct-drive motors (which are directly connected to the platter).

However, direct-drive turntables are more expensive and the preferred option for professional DJs.

Differences Between Belt-Drive and Direct-Drive Turntables

Belt-Drive

Direct-Drive

It uses a belt-driven motor that you can separate from the platter.

It uses a direct-drive motor that is attached to the platter

Has a torque of <1 kg/cm

Torque can reach up to 5 kg/cm

Susceptible to external interference, such as humidity and temperature

Less susceptible to external interference

The belt needs regular replacement due to wear and tear

Low exposure to wear and tear. Thus it doesn’t need regular replacement

Best for private use

Best for professional use and live performances

3. Signal Transmission

Since a turntable needs an external, supplementary device to play music out loud, it transmits signals to those devices. Depending on the type of turntable, there are three methods to transmit signals.

Traditional analog turntables use a needle that is housed in a cartridge to transmit signals. Another method, the digital vinyl system (DVS), uses a cartridge but ads a DJ software and an audio interface that converts analog information to digital data.

A DVS doesn’t play regular analog vinyl but time code records that contain a continuous tone that the DJ software can pick up and respond to. (Source)

The third method is PHASE, which eliminates the need for a tonearm and cartridge by using wireless transmission devices to play music from the DJ software.

Differences Between Analog, Digital, and PHASE Vinyl Systems

Analog

Digital

PHASE

It has a characteristically rich analog sound

Has all the benefits of digital audio while retaining the fee of analog turntables

Has all the benefits of digital audio while retaining the fee of analog turntables

Despite wear and tear, it has high emotional and collector’s value

Fewer chances of wear and tear

No risk of wear and tear

Requires the purchase of physical music

Digital music that you can carry around with you

Digital music that you can carry around with you

Has limited functionality

Advanced functionality, including effects, performance modes, and MIDI technology

Advanced functionality, including effects, performance modes, and MIDI technology

Other features that a turntable has include: Ultrapitch (wider pitch ranges), reverse function, and MIDI-compatible control sections that add a creative feel to your DJing.

All of these features depend on your style of djing and your needs. For instance, if you use a DVS, you may also wish to include an additional MIDI control section to control your performance modes in your software.

It is because it adds more dimensions to your live performance, such as looping, cue point, and key shifting.

Pros Of Using Turntables

1. Scratching

Although controllers allow you to scratch (to an extent), they cannot match turntables. After all, the art of scratching was formed and perfected on traditional turntables.

2. Unique Choices

Turntables afford you the flexibility to build a unique record collection that no one has. There is a lot of vintage music that never got released on digital, the only place you can get those songs is from a vinyl store.

3. Best Sound

It is an ongoing argument within the DJing community. Many believe that the analog sounds from a vinyl record are authentic and unbeatable. They claim that no other digital controller can reproduce them.

4. Build

Turntables cost a lot of money, but their durability more than makes up for it. If you treat your turntable well, it could last you for several decades.

Cons Of Using Turntables

1. Limited Music Selection

Record labels nowadays do not bother making vinyl records of new releases. Most new-age songs only have digital releases available. Unless you’re using digital turntables, your music selection is pretty limited.

2. Prone to Damage

Turntables have very delicate parts, like tonearms and needles, and these can quickly get damaged if you don’t exercise caution and care. Turntables that are used regularly for parties and events are more prone to damage.

3. Heavy and Bulky

Turntables are bulky and heavy, which can make transporting them around a burden. Most of them contain clamps and weights that add extra load to the unit. The average weight of most vinyl players is around 17lbs.

4. Challenging to Use

Turntables are hard to use, especially for beginners that have never used them before, or worse, never even played a vinyl record before.

5. Pricey

Turntables are expensive to set up and maintain because each component is usually sold separately. Not to mention the high cost of buying the vinyl record itself!

What Is A DJ Controller?

A DJ controller is a modern, all-in-one device that combines all the elements of a traditional mixer and decks into one piece. Most, but not all, controllers require a laptop and mixing software that gives DJs all the features and controls to mix music easily.

Compared to traditional turntables, a controller has so many more functions to offer and is typically more affordable.

Generally, a DJ controller mimics the traditional setup of a mixer and two turntables (asides from a few significant differences) by incorporating them all into one unit. You can scratch, mix tracks, and adjust EQs with a DJ controller, just as you would with a traditional setup.

Typically, DJ controllers control the DJ software installed on your computer. Then you would need a USB cable to connect your laptop to the controller, which gives you complete control over all the digital music in your library via the DJ software.

However, standalone DJ controllers allow you to do all of these without the need for a laptop. The DJ software comes pre-installed into the unit, which also has a large screen for navigation.

Apart from the regular platter and volume functions from the traditional setup, some knobs and controls allow you to switch between songs.

What Can A DJ Controller Do?

Apart from the normal function of mixing music, scratching, and listening to music, here are other functions that a DJ controller can perform.

1. Re-Edit Music

A DJ controller allows you to re-edit songs without the use of an audio editor. Some of the things you can edit using a DJ controller include switching drops, creating more extended intros, or drumming out new melodies.

However, all of these depend on the kind of DJ software you use. If you were to edit music using a traditional turntable setup, you would have to use an audio editor.

2. Video Mixing

It used to be that to mix a video, you needed to have a specialty visual mixer. However, with a DJ controller and software, you can use the processing power of your laptop to either play the song’s video or create your own synced visuals.

3. Customize Interface And Control Mapping

Every DJ has a unique style (or they should have one), so how you use your DJing equipment will differ according to that style.

The DJ software can allow you to customize your interface so that the functions you regularly use are right there, at your fingertips, and within reach. At the same time, you can hide the ones you rarely use away.

Although a DJ controller comes with a pre-installed control mapping, some DJ software can allow you to customize your control mapping, so the buttons you use the most are within reach.

What Features Do Controllers Have?

Some notable features of a DJ controller include:

1. Jog Wheels

These mimic the platter of a traditional turntable that allows you to scratch, nudge tracks, and adjust speeds to keep them in time.

2. Knobs And Pots

The knobs and pots on a controller function like those on a traditional mixer and allow you to adjust volume, EQ, and FX.

3. Software Integration

Although most decks, mixers, and DVS allow you to connect to software using your laptop, it is not as intuitive and proactive as a DJ controller.

Controllers are built to work alongside DJ software (and not as an afterthought), so they have much better, deeper, and intuitive integration with the software to access all of the remarkable functions outlined above.

4. Pads

A DJ controller also has pads, which are uniquely associated with them, to produce other effects, such as FX, hot cues, and samples.

5. Faders

A controller has two different types of faders that control audio volume. The channel fader allows you to control the volume of individual tracks, while the crossfader will enable you to set to instant cut (which is useful when scratching) or fade between songs.

Other features include the Play/Pause buttons (that allow you to cue, play, and stop songs) and the ports (that will enable you to connect to multiple hardware like speakers, extra decks, or a laptop).

Pros Of Using A Dj Controller

1. Affordability

A DJ controller is very affordable, which is great for beginners trying their hands out at DJing without investing too much into equipment. Some simple controllers cost as little as $50.

2. Ease Of Use

It’s easier to learn how to use a DJ controller than a traditional turntable. It has digital features like the sync button that keeps track of song time, so you don’t have to learn how to beat-match.

3. Compact And Lightweight

All of the features on a DJ controller are on one unit, so it is compact and easy to transport around without lugging around the extras like mixers, records, and cables.

Another advantage is that because the songs are digital, you can carry them around with you wherever you go. (Source)

4. More Functions And Flexibility

A DJ controller has almost all the different functions you need to perform. From loops to hot cues, touch strips, FX, assignable buttons, and other components, you have the flexibility to wow your audience at every turn.

5. Cheaper And Better Music Quality

Digital music has better sound quality, even compared to vinyl records, especially if they’re WAVs. They are also cheaper to buy, and you can easily build an extensive collection of songs for variety.

Cons Of Using A Dj Controller

1. Software Oriented

Most DJ controllers can only work with specific software. Unless you have a playlist you have already synced with your library, you won’t be able to play music using a USB stick or a vinyl record straight from its cuff.

2. Harder To Connect With The Audience

It’s harder to connect to the audience and get into the feel of your performance if your eyes are focused on your laptop to keep track of things. It may look to your listeners like you’re uninterested in interacting with them. (Sources)

3. Prone To Faults

Several things make a DJ controller prone to faults. For one, you need to use a laptop. The moment your laptop develops a faulHeret or decides to do an update in the middle of your set, you’re in a world of trouble unless you have a backup.

4. Small Buttons

The buttons, knobs, faders, jog wheels on the DJ controller are small and can be cumbersome to operate. It is because they have to maximize the space to fit all those features on one unit.

Comparing Turntables Vs. Dj Controller

The significant difference between a turntable and a controller is that the latter is a compact unit with all features in one place. At the same time, the former requires supplementary devices to work. There are many things a DJ controller does that a turntable cannot. (Source)

However, there are similarities between a DVS and a DJ controller because they both play audio devices. With the addition of a few components, a DVS should be able to do what a DJ controller does easily.

It is a table highlighting the significant differences between turntables and a DJ controller.

FEATURES

Turntables

DJ Controller

Beat Looping

YES

Platters and Needles

YES

Hot Cues

YES

Performance Effects

YES

Jog Wheels

YES

Sync

YES

LED Display

YES

REQUIREMENTS FOR SET UP

  

Computer

YES

Mixer

YES

USB Compatible

YES

BEST FOR

  

Portability

YES

Durability

YES

Price

YES

Scratching

YES

Beginners

YES

Conclusion

Hopefully, this article has given you a better understanding of the differences between turntables vs. DJ controllers.

In summary, if you are just starting as a new DJ, a controller is a more comfortable, affordable, and more straightforward way to ease yourself into it. In contrast, more experienced DJs have more flexibility to choose between both.

At the end of the day, whichever one you choose depends on your needs. Once you have carefully weighed the pros and cons and seen which one encompasses your needs the most, then you can go ahead to buy one.

Sources

1. Curry, B. (2015). Hip-Hop “Turntablism, Creativity and Collaboration. By Sophy Smith. Farnham: Ashgate,” 2013. 168 pp. ISBN 978-1-409-44337-7. Popular Music, 34(1), 137-140. doi:10.1017/S0261143014000737

2. Florian Heller and Jan Borchers “Visualizing Song Structure on Timecode Vinyls” (presentation, International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME’14), Goldsmiths, University of London, UK Jun 30 – Jul 03, 2014)

3. Takuro Mizuta Lippit “Turntable Music in the Digital Era: Designing Alternative Tools for

New Turntable Expression” (presentation, International Conference on New Interfaces for Musical Expression (NIME06), Paris, France June 4-8, 2006).

4. Rietveld, HC (2016). “Authenticity and Liveness in Digital DJ Performance.” in Hytönen-Ng, E and Tsioulakis, I (ed.) Musicians and their Audiences: Performance, Speech and Mediation New York (USA) and London Routledge, Dec 08, 2016.

5. Pri yon Joni, “9 Things You Need To Know Before “Upgrading” To Turntables From A Dj Controller,” YouTube video 23:29, Posted By “Pri yon Joni,” Aug 25, 2021. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=y6ucRNVzkSU

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