Foreword from the Editor
We at DJWORX do feel that 2 opinions are better than one, especially if they’re not the same. So when new teamster Arkaei threw an unsolicited Numark NS7II review at me without asking, I was surprised and chuffed to be able to offer a second opinion from an experienced and skilled DJ, but also one that has experience of being used for playing out too. Not only that — he’s got a long line of similar Numark models in his arsenal too that makes him ideally placed to offer expert and fully experienced opinion.
Be sure to check out the first NS7II review as well. But on with Arkaei’s review…
Product launches come wrapped in hardcore marketing lingo – this is when I usually start looking for holes to poke into. Numark boldly advertise the revamped Numark NS7II as the “best DJ controller ever built” – so how does it hold up exactly? I’m used to working with Traktor Scratch Pro, turntables and custom-mapped controllers – but I’ve also owned the original NS7, the standalone V7s and the NS6, which allows me to look at the new unit from every perspective.
Build, feel, and quality
Due to its motorized 7″ platters, the NS7II is a massive beast. Even Pioneer’s DDJ-SX is a featherweight in comparison; Numark’s new flagship weighs almost three times as much. That’s the price you have to pay for a full-metal controller that looks like it could play chicken with a school bus. It’s clearly built to last, but forget about putting it in your gigbag. I’ve tried to get it into my Magma Root Pack XXL which is the largest DJ backpack I know of, and failed – until I removed the knobs on the front of the unit. In the words of Roy Scheider: we’re gonna need a bigger boat. Or Numark’s own flightcase.
The layout and quality of the controls have both been improved significantly. When using the original NS7, I’ve always felt like there was a lot of wasted space; the loop section had received far too much love, whereas the cue buttons were too small for quick and precise action and the unconventional mixer section required a bit of getting used to. For FX control, you had to buy an add-on controller. All of that has been fixed on the Numark NS7II – the controls are laid out logically and the handling is excellent. The pads located below the platter deserve special mention, as they have been taken straight off Akai Pro’s new MPC series. They respond very well and take serious abuse without a single hiccup. They are backlit, too, and the bright colours make it easy to distinguish which mode they’re operating in – more on that later. Everything is spaced nicely, so even a heavy-handed person like me doesn’t have to worry about triggering anything by mistake. The large shift and deck layer buttons are a nice touch as well.
The mixer section has been modelled after the NS6 with an additional big filter knob and – finally! – level meter LEDs for every channel (the original NS7 and the NS6 only had them for the master). This layout conforms to what most DJs are used to nowadays. A user-replaceable crossfader with an adjustable curve is something you’d expect from a unit with turntable platters, but the upfader curves can be tweaked from the setup panel as well – a rare feature on the controller market. The browser section offers a lot of control – you can change deck layouts, switch between panels (mix recording, effects, sampler) and access every playlist and file on your computer. Finally, you can even edit beat grids directly from the unit.
The 7″ platters feel like small decks without tonearms, because that’s exactly what they are. Taken straight from Numark’s flagship turntables, the motors deliver very high torque. The only thing turntable users will have to get used to is the size and weight difference of the records; a 7″ has a slightly different momentum than a 12″, so scratch techniques that require tapping/pushing the record (like lazers) will require you to loosen the grip and practice a bit. Thankfully, the slipmats are also replaceable – I have swapped them for a set of IDA flying plates, which helps noticeably. The resolution is excellent, too – 3600 ticks per rotation make a difference especially when performing slow movements (adjusting loops, performing slow scratches). There is no sticker drift either. You can adjust start and stop time and even turn off the platter if you’re in the mood for CDJ-style control. In addition to that, there are pitch bend buttons, located directly under the amply-sized pitch fader – but you can always choose to rely on the sync function.
The pads operate in 5 modes – each mode has 2 layers with unique colour feedback, which makes them easy to memorize. Next to the pads, there are two buttons that control the parameters corresponding to that mode (loop/roll length, for example). The modes are as follows:
Layer 1 sets and triggers hot cues, layer 2 does the same but sets a loop simultaneously.
AUTO / ROLL
Layer 1 sets loops at a fixed length based on the beat grid of the current track. Layer 2 does the same with loop rolls.
Each layer controls a bank of 4 loops, giving you 8 loops stored separately from hot cues. The controls include manual in/out editing, loop exit and re-loop. Holding shift and pushing the parameter buttons moves the loop.
Layer 1 triggers samples stored in Serato‘s internal SP-6 sample player. Layer 2 does the same with added velocity, allowing for more expression when playing. The parameter buttons cycle through four sample banks, giving you a total of 24 samples. While the controls for the sampler are very basic, you can assign the output to a free mixer channel and take full advantage of EQ, filter and effects. Serato DJ also remembers the samples used in the previous session, so you don’t have to load up your favourites every time you fire up the software.
Layer 1 turns the pads into a small step sequencer that follows the beat grid of the current track, allowing you to trigger each slice (and looproll it) as desired. Layer 2 locks down the current loop.
Like the original NS7, the Numark NS7II also has a touch strip that allows you to sweep through the entire track quickly and “needledrop”. The updated version features LEDs that visualize the playback position – along with the beat offset LEDs located above the mixer section, we’re looking at a possible remedy for the widespread “serato face” syndrome. For those of you about to yell “they stole that from Pioneer!” – no, they didn’t. Actually, it was the other way around: the NS7 came out way before the first CDJs that had a touch strip like this. While we’re at it, Slip Mode is also not a Pioneer thing – they just popularized it as a prominent feature of the CDJ 900. It’s not that big a deal anyway, I just needed to get this out – features are being “borrowed” all the time because sometimes it just doesn’t make sense to reinvent the wheel.
Slip Mode is very similar to Flux Mode in Traktor: it allows you to scratch as well as trigger hot cues and loops and even motor brake (hit play/pause with platter stop turned up) without affecting the actual playback position of the track. In addition to that, the NS7II also has a bleep/reverse switch right next to the platter. Reverse is self-explanatory – bleep, however, is unique to Numark gear (I remember it from the CDX which I used to own). It’s a simple but genius combination of reverse and slip mode: the track plays backwards until you release the spring-activated switch, at which point regular playback resumes where the track would’ve been if you hadn’t done anything.
Out-of-the-box functionality and integration are potential deal-breakers for people who, unlike me, are reluctant to mess with MIDI mappings. Fortunately, here’s where the NS7II really shines. The effect section seems very basic at first glance, but don’t let that fool you – you can do a lot of things without nerding out. The most beginner-friendly feature in my opinion is the filter knobs on the mixer section. They can operate in 3 different modes: as a regular two-way filter, a filter combined with a loop roll and a filter that sweeps the first effect in either of the two available banks (or both at the same time). The effect knobs are capacitive – they can respond to touch if needed; grab a knob, the effect turns on – release it and it turns off. If you like to work fast, this is pure fun – just combine effects and experiment. The same goes for the mixer section; the EQ knobs can be set to respond to touch, giving you an instant kill function.
This is usually the main argument Traktor users have against Serato: “the effects are inferior”. I was one of them – I love effects (admittedly, sometimes a little too much) and the ones in Serato Itch haven’t exactly impressed me – but Serato have been busy. The partnership with iZotope, manufacturers of superb audio processing and instrument plugins, resulted in an array of really high-quality effects that should silence all critics. Especially the reverbs are the best-sounding I’ve ever heard in a DVS. Serato DJ already comes with a decent amount of effects, but you can buy affordable expansion packs from within the software. The first expansion pack is free, and as I’m typing this there is only one other FX expansion pack available in the store (besides Serato Video, which also works with Serato DJ) – but there is a lot of potential here and I think we can safely assume there will be more in due time. Personally, I would love to see one dedicated to harmonic mixing – because unlike Traktor, Serato DJ has no Key Adjust feature. That being said, the effects available now should keep you busy for a while. Like with Traktor, they can operate in multi mode (3 FX slots per bank) or single mode (1 FX slot with detailed controls). You can also fully customize the list of available effects in the control panel – that way you don’t end up with a dropdown menu that takes up half the screen.
All of this sounds pretty good so far, but I decided to kick my review up a notch by taking the NS7II to an actual gig. Normally, I try not to play out with a new unit until I’ve stress-tested it to death, especially not when I’m given the peak time slot on a timetable – but after a week of messing around without running into serious issues, I felt pretty confident. Because my library is gridded for Traktor and there is no software tool that handles library imports reliably yet, I was a little worried about the timing of beat-synced effects and looprolls – until I made a backup of my library, swallowed hard and hit the “Analyze Files” button. To my surprise, Serato DJ handled it quickly and delivered impressive results: about 90% of the tunes I selected for that night (mostly drum’n bass) didn’t even require corrections – and for those that did, I was able to make quick adjustments on PFL while playing. I haven’t encountered a single problem throughout the set – and most importantly, I had a lot of fun. So much fun Numark may have to dispatch a SWAT team to pick up the NS7II, because I don’t feel like giving it back.
Of course, there are small drawbacks. Few clubs have DJ booths capable of accommodating a controller this size next to a regular setup, but times are changing and bringing your own gear to a gig isn’t that unusual anymore. In my experience, everything can usually be worked out if you send over a rider ahead of time. Be nice to tech guys and they’ll respond in kind! As an added bonus, soon as you roll into a club with this beast no one will dare call you a button-pusher anymore. Some may complain about having to lug around 50 pounds of gear – yeah, I get that. But remember, a few years ago it used to be 2 crates of records… you can’t have everything.
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again: there is no such thing as a perfect controller. Granted, the NS7II comes so close Numark can actually get away with calling it “the best DJ controller ever built”. It’s sturdy, works very well and is a lot of fun to use. But there are things that could’ve been better when you look at it from a controllerist’s point of view. If you’re working with the sampler, you will have to make all the settings on the Serato GUI as the controller has no buttons dedicated to that. It’s a shame because 2 MPC pads go completely unused – they could at least be made to cycle through playback modes (trigger, hold, on/off) and toggle looping for the current sample slot. Also, you can’t grab samples on the fly yet – but knowing the dedication Numark and Serato bring to the table, I’m sure this functionality will improve with a future update.
The large sync button is located close to the play/stop and cue buttons, while the slip mode button is tiny and too far away from the MPC pads to pull off really quick slip mode combos. It should be the other way around, as sync is something you probably won’t touch very often once you turn it on – and slip mode clearly is. It would help if the mappings could be edited, perhaps in a way similar to how control surfaces like Akai Pro’s APCs are handled inside Ableton Live: you can make custom mappings which override the functionality of the script for whatever control was remapped, leaving the rest of the unit in control surface mode.
The timing of the effects should be the same in single and multi mode. The latter only offers straight intervals (1/16, 1/8, 1/4, 1/2 and so forth) while single mode adds dotted and triplet timings, which is awesome for dub-style delays – the downside is, you have to sacrifice an entire FX bank just for that. I’m sure these advanced timings can be easily made available for both FX modes – perhaps with a dedicated option in the setup panel for people who aren’t as fond of syncopation as I am. This is obviously more of a software issue than one with the controller, but given their interdependence, it’s hard to keep things separate.
While the visual feedback on the unit is excellent overall, I’m missing an indicator for the current loop length. Besides loading tracks, this is the only time I ever need to look at the laptop screen because I use loops a lot. If I were to implement this without redesigning the hardware, I would probably visualize loop length on the search strip LEDs when the shift button is pressed – not perfect, but better than not to have it at all.
The mixer section could’ve been laid out a little better, too: the FX assignment buttons are located above the gain knobs while the channel source selector switches are right below the filter knobs. Considering their workflow priority, their positions should be switched. You’ll need both hands if you’re using Filter+FX combos and want to switch between FX banks at the same time. Finally, besides the MPC pads, there are also separate hot cue buttons next to the platters, which is cool – but there are only 5 of them, although there would be room for 8.
None of these things are show-stoppers though – just the difference between an awesome controller and a perfect controller. I’m sold anyway.
Sturdy build & great handling
Near-perfect software integration – most features are accessible from the unit
Size, weight and matching price tag
Limited sampler controls