More and more, the idea of showing up somewhere to perform with just instruments isn’t working for today’s musicians.

As more music gets created within DAWs (digital audio workstations), many performing musicians struggle with how to play their songs live.

DJ controllers are devices that can solve this problem. Don’t let the name fool you because they’re not just for DJs. Using a DJ controller will help you bring the sounds and production elements of your music to performance settings.

In this guide, we’ll explain what DJ controllers are and will help you find the best model for your needs.

What is a DJ controller?

DJ controllers are devices that allow musicians to mix and activate tracks during performances. They typically feature knobs, encoders, jog wheels, faders, backlit buttons, touch strips, and other components.

These devices are designed to be easier and more intuitive to use than laptops, tablets, and smartphones. Instead of relying on your DAW for shows, DJ controllers make mixing and playing pre-recorded tracks easier and more reliable.

Modern DJ controllers are inspired by turntables but are far less expensive and come with more features. One huge advantage is the ability to access DAW software through them.

Today’s DJ controllers aren’t limited to use in club settings, they’re used by everyone from indie-pop acts to professional DJs.

How to choose a DJ controller

Choosing the right DJ controller for you depends on your specific needs.

Choosing the right DJ controller for you depends on your specific needs.

Some are designed to only work with specific DAWs. Others feature customizable controls, which is a huge advantage for some musicians.

If you have a preferred app or DAW you’re working with, that’s important for choosing a DJ controller.

DJ controllers sometimes come with their own software or integrate with the software you already have.

So pay attention to the software suite a DJ controller is optimized for—there’s no sense in choosing a controller that doesn’t work with Ableton if that’s the platform you already use.

While some controllers feature built-in inputs, others don’t.

If timecode vinyl and CDs are a part of your performances, you’ll want to opt for controllers with enough inputs to meet your needs.

These are some popular DJ controller formats you should consider:

Customizable DJ controllers

These controllers feature simple interfaces with programmable buttons. The big advantage here is the ability to make a DJ controller’s functionality work exactly how you need and want it to.

DAW-integrated models

Some controllers feature their own unique software but others integrate with popular DAWs, like Ableton. The obvious perk here is choosing a device that works with your DAW so there’s no learning curve.

Vinyl emulators

Traditional turntables are expensive and hard to transport to shows. Vinyl emulators are designed to mimic the turntable experience in a portable package that is far more affordable.

Choosing the right DJ controller depends on your needs, resources, and goals.

If you’re a DJ looking for an affordable setup inspired by the sound of turntables, vinyl emulators are the way to go. Other performers should consider customizable and DAW-integrated options.

The 5 best DJ controllers for every budget

If you’ve never worked with a DJ controller before, consider buying an affordable one before opting for something expensive. This is a list of controllers for every performer’s budget:

1. Hercules DJ DJControl Starlight Controller

This affordable and well-reviewed device is a great introduction to DJ controllers.

This affordable and well-reviewed device is a great introduction to DJ controllers.

The DJControl Starlight gives you everything you need to mix and scratch tracks with bass EQ and filter knobs on two channels plus other mappable controls.

2. Pioneer DDJ-SB3 Serato DJ Controller with Pad Scratch

This is a solid option that’s still affordable, featuring a built-in audio interface, pad scratch controls, and auto-loop buttons.

DDJ-SB3 is designed for use with Serato DJ Lite and offers simple and intuitive functionality.

3. Ableton Push 2

Easy to use, sleek, and powerful, this controller integrates with Ableton Live. It’s customizable and is perfect for non-DJs looking to easily activate and tweak sounds during performances.

The Push 2 is probably one the best DAW controllers we’ve encountered.

It’s customizable and is perfect for non-DJs

4.  Novation SL MkIII

This MIDI keyboard and DJ controller hybrid from Novation gives musicians an array of performance options.

The SL MkIII also integrates with Ableton Live and shifts seamlessly from performance to track activation and mixing.

5. Pioneer DJ Controller XDJ-RX2

This premium option offers intuitive vinyl emulation controls, a dual waveform display, and powerful performance features.

The XDJ series is club standard, meaning these are the DJ decks you’ll find in most clubs—they take USB and use the same framework as the popular CDJ series.

It’s not cheap, but the XDJ-RX2 is a truly professional DJ system that will give serious DJs and other performers everything they need on stage.

Control your set

These are just a few of the many great DJ controllers out there.

Some, like the Ableton Push 2, are designed to be used right out of the box. Others take more time and experimentation to master.

While some controllers on this list are expensive, others aren’t. The truth is that you won’t need to spend a lot of money if your performance needs are simple.

Once you pick the right controller for your needs, you’ll be able to access a universe of sounds on stage.