The “Vinyl Shootout” For Mobile DJs

Choose Your Weapon. It’s A Vinyl Shootout.

I remember when I made the decision to make a large investment in my new but growing mobile wedding DJ business that I knew I was going to use vinyl as my primary mode of playback. At that time I owned a Traktor S2 and while working in its own right, the jog wheels were something that I can only describe as lifeless. And after playing around with decks like the Pioneer CDJ line, and eventually trying out the DDJSX and DDJSZ later on it codified my decision the vinyl route was the right one. Something about a moving platter with that tactile feel of a piece of vinyl to me is the key to become one with the music.

In 2013 I was debating what to purchase. My first instinct was to immediately go with the stalwart of the DJ world, the Technics SL1200 turntable. The last time I had used one was in the 1990s. And I remember how heavy they were to lug around. Of course, there are some other negatives of having a turntable that I’ll cover in my review below.

Research

I started to research what options were out there. It seemed the “Super OEM” models of the time (the attempts to replicate the classic SL1200 Technics) were of varying quality. But there were two other options that I just became aware of. They were a lot like vinyl, and a whole lot “next generation”; the Denon SC3900 and the Numark NS7. Both had different spins on the classic vinyl solution and made for a tough decision to select one. At the time I decided to take a gamble and go with the Denon SC3900.

About 18 months have passed since my original investment and since then I’ve actually owned now three different vinyl options; the Denon SC3900 (which was my first choice), the Numark NS7ii (the successor to the NS7 and my second choice), and the Reloop RP-8000 (a new Super OEM turntable which became my third choice). Since I have had direct experience with all three I thought that a “Vinyl Shootout” article, especially in regard to the Mobile DJ, was in order.

What this article is not

There are a ton of great articles and videos out there on all three pieces of equipment. Rather than simply recite what these articles and videos do so well I am going to focus more on the cons that have made me select what I am now going to be using for my 2015 wedding season as a mobile DJ. As a club DJ, a studio DJ, or even a bedroom DJ you would have other factors to consider or ignore.

Something else to keep in mind is that there is no wrong or right choice here. Articles like this are purely subjective and are subject to your own experiences and preferences. That being said I hope this article sheds some light on the pros and cons of these three options.

Additional Hardware

Since this test requires more than just a deck I best disclose what else is under the hood. In this case, I have two 13″ MacBook Pros, an early-2011 model and a mid-2012 model, both with i5 Processors, and both with 16GB of memory. I also have an external 1TB Silicon Power USB 3.0 external drive for all my music.

During my experiences, I have used Serato Scratch Live 2.5, Seato DJ 1.6, 1.7, 1.7.1, and 1.72. I’ve also used OS-X 10.9 – 10.10.1.

The Denon SC3900

Dencon SC3900
The SC3900 looking very turntable-esque

Here is a great primer video for the Denon SC3900 from DJ Tech Tools.

The SC3900 is the second generation of a vinyl alternative superseding the SC3700. At the time of my purchase the SC3900s just came out and the general consensus was that Denon had nailed it. Given that I would be shedding a considerable amount weight over a Technics SL1200 mk2 I decided to take a gamble on the SC3900.

Overall the SC3900 was all it was cracked up to be and then some. The feel brought me back to my old SL1200s, even though the platter was just 9″. Not having to worry about needles, about knocking the tonearm off while playing, it just made sense as a mobile DJ to go this route. The fact that I could play off CD or USB in case I needed to reboot Serato or my laptop is an invaluable level of backup to have at my disposal.

The Breakdown

  • Sticker Drift. For those that don’t know when you place a marker on your vinyl, you expect to always come back to that marker point. The problem with the SC3900 is that if you spin the platter fast enough the sticker can “drift” so it does not meet its original mark. This will drive any turntablist batty. Denon has not done anything to correct this issue and the best workaround I can offer is to “re-align” your marker (set your marker to the correct position and then press your cue point to set it).
  • On occasion, the mode in Serato Scratch Live and Serato DJ would jump to INT. It happens with enough frequency that I ended up MIDI mapping my eject button to toggle the mode so I could quickly change it when needed.
  • The hot cue (dicer) buttons to me are illogically placed in the top left corner of the deck. Poor design of that leads to a bad workflow on the decks. I really wish they were laid out on the bottom corner or in the bottom center of the deck.
  • There have been a couple of occasions where some songs I loaded onto a USB drive would not playback on the SC3900. I still have not found a rhyme or reason for this but it’s something to be aware of.
  • It seems that Denon has not been super-active in supporting Serato Scratch Live and Serato DJ to the fullest. Things like having to use Hybrid MIDI mode instead of a full MIDI mode are a bit annoying where a user could have great info displayed on the decks so less staring at the laptop would be beneficial. If they can’t support it I almost want to say that they should reduce the screen size so the real estate of the unit could be better managed.
  • There is some concern about the future of Denon DJ. inMusic, the parent company of Numark, purchased Denon back in April 2014. People are still wondering what will happen with products like the SC3900. So be aware that the future is a bit murky for Denon.

The SC3900 is a damn good unit. I mean it’s REALLY good. So good that if you want to have the vinyl feel without worrying about weight, needles, tonearms, dust collection, skipping, calibration, and the like, this is the route you should take.

The Numark NS7ii

The Numark NS7ii. A controller with the vinyl touch.
The Numark NS7ii. A controller with the vinyl touch.

Here is an extensive video by DJ TLM on the Numark NS7iiDJ Digtal Tips has a review of the new NS7iii here.

This second-generation controller from Numark literally has all the bells-and-whistles from vinyl platters, AKAI pads, capacitive knobs, 4 decks, the list is nearly endless. When I started to play around with this controller at the 2014 Atlantic City DJ Expo I was blown away on how solid the unit felt. Compared to other controllers on the market, this thing was a tank, and in a good way. Let me say this here and now, the hype is real when they say this is the best controller in the market.

The Breakdown

  • USB Dropouts with Serato DJ 1.7.1 and Yosemite 10.10. While this was not officially supported I tend to go bleeding edge. In this case, it did burn me where there was a huge issue where I would get 1-5 instances a gig where the sound would stop and start back up 0.5-3.0 seconds later. (Corrected with Serato DJ 1.7.2 and Yosemite 10.10.1)
  • Because this is a controller it relies on using more resources from your laptop than something like timecode + a mixer. Be prepared for even top-end machines to be pushed to their upper limits.
  • “Popping” with Serato DJ and Yosemite. Even after the latest updates with Serato DJ 1.7.2 and Yosemite 10.10.1, I tend to hear popping, especially if I am trying to do a scratch routine. This is related to the resources bullet above.
  • The color scheme of the controller is mostly red (minus the AKAI pads). This tends to be a problem where I don’t notice I have an effect engaged which tends to mess up my workflow when transitioning. I think if the colors changed from say red to green it would be a much clearer indicator that that effect bank is active.
  • The vinyl, while 45 sized (7″) is not quite the same as the Denon SC3900 or a traditional turntable. For instance, the shaft of the motor seems differently designed where you can’t pinch to drag or accelerate the vinyl directly (it slips as soon as any major resistances comes upon it). There are ways around this, like nudging and dragging the side of the platter but it is a different feel.
  • While the controller has damn near every feature available on the controller, it’s at the point of overkill.
  • If you are looking to shed weight over say a mixer, SC3900, and case, this will not be the solution. You do save a couple of pounds but it’s negligible and the height of the Odyssey case that many get with this makes moving this around a bulky proposition. I found it easier moving my mixer/SC3900/case combo.

This is not to say I did not like the NS7ii. On the contrary, it is a highly capable controller. Also, something to consider is the Numark NS7iii, which is essentially a NS7ii with a display unit attached to the top of the controller which has some improvements over the NS7ii on paper, but I am curious if the result is a better product (hello Numark would love a test unit). A side by side comparison of the NS7ii and NS7ii can be found here. 🙂

Reloop RP-8000

A closeup of one damn great turntable.
A closeup of one damn great turntable.

Here is a DJ Tech Tools review of the Reloop RP-8000.

What can’t you say about the Reloop RP-8000? It really does take the Super OEM turntable design and steps it up a notch. It sheds a little bit of weight, adds built-in “dicers” at the bottom or corner of the unit depending if you like to orient your turntables in a battle mode or traditional mode configuration. And frankly, it just feels solid and is worthy of the price tag.

The Breakdown

  • Timecode vinyl, especially the new high performance 6+ dB gain vinyl, is loud. So mixing in a lower volume settings like a cocktail hour or dinner might yield some people hearing the annoying 1KHz tone.
  • You will always have a concern that vibrations from subs and people dancing that a needle could skip. There are of course lots of ways to combat this but there will always be the possibility of interrupting playback.
  • While the Reloop RP-8000s step up the capabilities of a turntable, it naturally lacks the ability to play off alternative media like a USB drive like the SC3900.
  • You will have increased setup time to consider calibration and maintenance that a turntable requires.

The turntable is THE ICON as a DJ. There is no getting around this simple fact.

To The Victor…

So as a mobile DJ what should you choose? Well, all three are great solutions but who takes the championship ring? My choice may surprise you.

#3 The Numark NS7ii

A competent device that has some notable flaws to become a great device. It has heft so you know this device is not some toy. Controls are logically laid out. To rely on this for a wedding to me is taking a risk. The increased utilization on laptop performance is a little disappointing and it’s non-modular so there is a chance the whole unit becomes unusable while playing a set. But when it works, it works well.

#2 The Reloop RP-8000

There is nothing quite like a needle to vinyl, but vinyl has inherent flaws as a mobile DJ. Sure you add a little weight, and you add some setup time to make sure everything is in working order but you really can’t go wrong with choosing this as your main setup. But be sure to work in a reliable backup in case something goes down.

#1 The Denon SC3900

What? This comes even as a shocker to me. I remember seeing a video on the SC3900 where a person claimed this “was better than a turntable” and I looked at that claim wish skepticism. You know what, in some cases it is. Denon knocked this out of the park with making it feel like a turntable but retaining qualities that a turntable can’t emulate like not being affected by vibrations and a USB port to play off of natively as a backup solution. As a Mobile DJ, it’s hard not to love this.

Addendum

Now some people exclaimed, “blasphemy” that I chose a “controller” over a turntable. I must tell you that this race was really close. I have an affinity to vinyl and an affinity to music. The convenience factor weighs in on this decision. But I also think this speaks to the quality of the Denon SC3900.

All this being said I interchange between the Reloops and the Denons at the gigs I perform at. Say it’s an outdoor wedding, then most of the time I would rather go with the Denons to combat things like the particulates, dust, and other anomalies in the air that could affect playback. But if it’s indoors where the floors are nice and solid where I don’t worry about the needle bouncing around, the turntables come out.

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