Link: Numark — Price: $99/€119/£99

Numark Orbit wireless DJ handheld MIDI controller review (8)

Introduction

In this DJ gear reviewing lark, products generally fall into fairly distinct categories, ones which allow we hacks to slip into auto-pilot and coast our way through a relative box-ticking exercise. But then the Numark Orbit arrived, leaving me with no boxes to tick, or auto-pilots to engage. For the Orbit doesn’t comfortably fit into a neat pigeon hole of doing a particular thing — it does cool things and does them very well. So wish me luck as I fly solo, without a parachute, and dig into what this little thingy has to offer.

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In A Nutshell

The Numark Orbit is a handheld MIDI controller. It’s small, covered in all manner of controls, and is wireless. Outside of that, I feel that the Orbit pretty much becomes whatever you want it to, but most probably a fun controller for triggering hot cues, samples, effects and other such DJ techniques. It’s self powering as well i.e. it recharges via USB for a reported 8 hours of use, thus doesn’t have a constant craving for Duracells.

It’s class compliant, doesn’t need any drivers, and comes with a rudimentary DJ application and editor. Along with the wireless dongle and cables, the Numark Orbit is a very self contained controller, ready to plug and play right out of the box.

First impressions

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Let’s get the obvious comparisons out of the way, and hopefully dispense with the painfully overused and unfunny jokes. The first comparison to make is with a handheld game controller. It’s a fair comparison, as I suspect that Numark wanted to make this as immediately familiar and user-friendly as possible. Be it Xbox, Playstation, PSP or any other controller that works wirelessly with movement sensors, the Numark Orbit shamelessly plugs right into that mindset, right down to having L1 and R1 buttons. I’m also reminded of the original Pacemaker handheld device, and the Wii U controller as well.

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And you only wish your creaky console controller felt like the Numark Orbit. This is one tough piece of gear, and not even remotely in the same cheap quality bracket. The slightly rubberised case is rock solid and creak-free. The rubber buttons are stable and feel very MPC-like, and the bank and virtual knob buttons are equally solid too. I also like the way that the chrome plastic shoulder buttons mimic the metal lanyard clips to make the Orbit symmetrical.

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My main issue with the Orbit is the centre jog wheel. The tension on the wheel is pretty tight, the centre area slippy, and the raised rubbery edge of the wheel really quite small, making the wheel hard to turn. This is a bit of a let down as changing effects parameters or any other knob based feature is harder than it should be. I suspect this is to stop unwanted movement when jumping around with the Orbit. I just wish it was a little more free running — trying to move it with just the grooved centre is hard. According to Numark it will free up, but it does at least have freer movement if you use the rubber jog wheel edge. And new units will have different grease to make it easier to turn too. However, a wheel with a dimple like on the DJ2GO might have been better, especially when holding with one hand.

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Special mention must go to the light show. Numark has absolutely nailed the brightness of the controls. They’re ridiculously vivid and densely saturated. I would have loved it more if the RGB colour differences were more marked. But even in the lightest of daytime rooms or darkest of dungeons, the Numark Orbit will be seen from a long way off.

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The oddest thing about the Orbit is that Numark pitches it as a wearable, either velcro’d to your body via the supplied strap, worn round your neck with a lanyard, or most bizarrely worn like a belt buckle. I only wish I had a belt thin enough to try it on to boost my credibility. I get the lanyard fitting, as when you’re not using it, hanging it around your neck is kind of natural, but I’m not sure many people will actually fix the Orbit to their body.

IDEA: The belt fitment on the back is crying out for an angled stand, so that you can place it right behind your mixer or controller, or indeed at the side of a turntable.

So yes, it is like a games controller and deliberately so, but the similarity ends there. The Numark Orbit is built to a standard far greater than its price, and considerably more worthy than your derisory and inaccurate Simon jibes. The Orbit is a palm-sized beast.

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Layout

Let’s reel off the controls first:

  • 16 x RGB rubber pads, each capable of displaying 12 different RGB colours. They’re not pressure or velocity sensitive, which is a shame. Orbit Pro anyone?
  • 4 bank buttons, thus enabling 64 individual controls on the pads.
  • 4 virtual knob buttons per bank, making 16 mappable knobs.
  • 2 shoulder buttons that trigger the X and Y accelerometer. Press and hold for momentary, or double click to lock.

Ergonomically speaking, the success or failure will depend on how you plan to use the Numark Orbit. I suspect the Numark’s primary usage was planned to be handheld, so it makes sense for the pads to be curved around the centre jog wheel. I don’t know if it would be any easier to use if the pads were square and in straight lines, but it wouldn’t look as pleasing to the eye, although in a horizontal laid down position, would have made more sense from an MPC pad bashing perspective.

Installation

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As a class compliant device, it’s plug and play. With the Orbit on, plug in the dongle and you’re off. You needn’t worry about wifi configuring as the dongle and Orbit connect via their own ad hoc 2.4Ghz wireless connection that doesn’t use wifi. So for those who routinely follow the sound advice of turning off wifi on your laptop when performing, don’t worry — the Orbit still works just fine. You can also plug in via the supplied but extremely short mini USB cable directly to your laptop, which has the added benefit of keeping the Orbit powered up too, and still uses a single USB port.

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Numark has provided some software to get you up and running though. You have to go through product registration process that asks for way too much personal information. If I had bought this, I’d just want to get going, and not have to deal with the inMusic personal information hoover. Take note Numark.

But once in, you get a basic player, mapped to the Orbit and simply needs you to drag and drop tracks to the decks to play. I say player, as it’s little more than a visual demo for the Orbit. It lacks some fundamentals of DJing such as pitch, and tracks have to be loaded via mouse or trackpad. But for free, it is a bit of fun. But it’s digging deeper into the customisation where the real fun starts.

MIDI Mapping

Given that the Numark Orbit is class compliant, it also makes itself available for point and click MIDI learn. Each piece of software has its own way of mapping — personally I find algoriddim’s djay to be the most intuitive, and it was just a short amount of time before I had djay bending and twisting effects and filters via the accelerometers, and even rudimentary scratch control on the jog wheel. Such fun.

But not all software offers MIDI out capability, so if you wish, the Orbit has onboard ability to change the pad colours directly. It feels a little like a game power combo to set up, but doable nonetheless.

Obviously you can dig much deeper if you’re prepared to put in the time and effort. And to help with this, Numark provides the Numark Orbit Editor. Think NI’s Controller Editor and you’ve got it. This gives you full MIDI message level control over the Orbit. While you do get a degree of point and click control, it does rather depend on you getting numerical and knowing just what you’re doing with messages. This is not MIDI learn at all.

Of course, if all this is too much hard work, Numark is providing a couple of maps to get you going in Traktor in their dedicated Orbit area called the O-Zone. This is also where you can grab the Orbit software directly without inMusic’s intrusive personal details hoover in the way. At the time of writing, you get 2 and 4 deck effects maps, as well as a track preparation map too. But in light of last Wednesday’s Traktor Pro Remix Deck unlocking, Numark is hard at work on Remix Decks maps as I write this.

But remember, the Numark Orbit is just a MIDI device which within reason can do pretty much what you want it to. Hopefully the O-Zone will become a community hub where users can share maps that can control all manner of software. Jared Helfer adds more about in his second opinion piece.

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In Use

Here’s an interesting situation. Because the Numark Orbit has no fixed function, it’s really hard to say how well it performs. I can tell you that it’s relatively weightless, the pads are brilliant in any lighting conditions, and that the responsiveness is amazing with no noticeable latency. I wish the jog wheel was looser though, as holding and turning doesn’t always feel great. The accelerometers have just the right responsiveness for me as well. Frankly, it’s hard to fault the majority of features of the Orbit at all.

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A quick comment on the wireless operation. Having already covered off that you DVS DJs don’t need to enable wifi to use the Orbit, it comes down to how well it performs with latency and range. It goes without saying that it works best when the dongle is in the line of sight. And up close in the normal way of DJing, the Orbit performs brilliantly. As you move away though it becomes less happy. I got to the other end of the worxlab — around 20 metres — before it really started to feel unusable.

One thing to clarify — initial PR from Numark indicated a touch sensitive jog wheel. This information has subsequently made it out all over the internet, including just about every retailer site. Clearing this up — the jog wheel is NOT touch sensitive. That said, you can still map it for jog wheel scratching, albeit basic. Just keep that wheel moving to keep your cue point.

So having established that the features work just fine, perhaps a better approach might be to look at specific use cases and see how well they might be carried out with an Orbit. From a live performance perspective, the Orbit is suited very much to freeing the DJ from being hunched over their DJ gear. I don’t think anyone wants to see Steve Aoki-style crowd surfing from Orbit users (or from anyone but Steve Aoki to be honest), but the odd flourish of “watch me mess with this filter and effect” while simultaneously moving their body in time is a little more interesting than watching a hunchback check their mail. Ultimately, it adds a much needed fun element to a set.

Another performance based use is with lighting. It’s not just DJ gear that can be controlled with MIDI — light can be as well. Imagine having a lighting setup triggered from the Orbit via colour coded buttons while you bounce around the stage and hold it up to the crowd, or even get the crowd to mess with the buttons to switch stuff on and off. Pure interactivity at its best.

Another case: Perhaps you’ve got a small controller, and don’t want to spend a lot more cash to upgrade to a larger controller, when you simply want to add some extra buttons to your setup, or indeed stop using shift functions on your buttons and just have dedicated ones. The Orbit can do that for you too.

DJ Tech Tool Midi fighter 3d

The Obvious Comparison

It would be a clear omission not to make a comparison with the DJ Techtools Midifighter 3D in this review. When the collective “we” at DJWORX first saw the Orbit, it was quite obvious to us where it was aimed at. It’s not as though there is a large market for handheld controllers, because if there was, the market would already be saturated with all manner of inexpensive options. But DJTT capitalised on the niche controllerist market, and building upon their near monopoly, became very successful in putting out several arcade button variations on a theme, to make a highly desirable hand made product and at the same time build a solid boutique brand.

So Numark came to the handheld 16 pad RGB button idea (which was theirs from stable mate Akai anyway) and changed it up a little. Firstly, it’s wireless, meaning not being shackled to your setup via a USB cable. Secondly, the Orbit is arguably more comfortable in your hand, and being more grippy is less likely to end up in a punter’s face when it slips from your hot sweaty flailing hands. And thirdly, the Orbit is between a third and half the price of the MF3D.

That said though, I struggle with the idea that brand loyalists will give the Orbit a second look. An Orbit Pro with aftertouch and advanced combos would certainly begin to turn a few heads, and it’s something that is well within Numark’s capability.

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A Different Comparison

For me though, I’m drawing closer comparisons with Novation Dicers, and in this context, you can see why I really have no time for the throwaway “toy” comments. For £99, you get a single wire-free unit, with 16 buttons over 4 layers and RGB colours. Granted, it’s not in the corner of your decks, but can be placed in a variety of positions, especially if a stand is made available. That said, the Orbit’s performance on a flat surface is amazing. It does not move at all, so feel free to hammer away.

Of course, MIDI isn’t limited to DJ software. And being an adaptable and user mappable technology, the options are relatively endless. If only there were an easy way to map Final Cut Pro X.

Because the Numark Orbit has no fixed use or familiar form, it’ll work as well as you want it to, rather than having to conform to an existing paradigm. If you’re just wanting it to do simple things, it can do that without a hitch. If your needs are more demanding, and you’re prepared to do some long mapping hours, it’ll also reward you as well.

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Summing Up

I feel that I do have to stress this again — the Numark Orbit is a very sturdy controller, with a proper wireless operation, amazingly vivid rubber buttons, and is just as mappable as others on the market. You get considerably more for your money than you should, but still people will look down upon it dismissively without ever having tried it.

It does raise an interesting point. The brand perception of Numark does cloud people’s judgements somewhat where the Orbit is concerned. It certainly shares a lot of features with the Midfighter 3D and Novation Dicers, which are viewed as serious tools. If however it was adorned with a DJTT logo or called the Novation Dicer Pro, I do wonder if people would be more accepting.

Ultimately, this is a “throw it at the wall and see if it sticks” product for Numark. In the whole scheme of product development, I don’t think it’s been rocket science, as much of the work has already been done before. It feels like a Jobsian move — take an existing idea but execute it better. And they’ve certainly succeeded in many aspects of the format, and will doubtlessly sell in considerable numbers.

As I posted on Facebook, I’ve developed a massive tech crush on the Numark Orbit. It’s a very affordable yet high quality device that can be simple plug and play to perform a particular function, or can be as busy and complex as you want it to be. It’s almost formless and can adapt, within reason, to whatever you want it to do. One thing that it clearly is not is a toy. You try pulling off a filter sweep, effect parameter changes, hot cue hammering, and virtual knob turning at the same time with anything less than a proper DJ tool.

The Orbit is much more than a flail-around-look-at-me way to be noticed behind the decks. How you use it is up to you, if indeed you need to use it at all. There’s no denying that it’s a Marmite product, but be under no illusion — if it’s your bag, the Numark Orbit is a truly wonderful piece of DJ gear.

Ratings

Build Quality
Not in any way toylike. I’ve bent and twisted the Orbit and it didn’t creak at all. And all the controls feel built to last.

Features
Hard to rate with any authority because of its uniqueness. I love everything except the jog wheel. But what it sets out to do, it does brilliantly, and is as plug and play or map all day as you want. I should copyright that.

Value For Money
At this price, it’s right in that sod-it-why-not bracket. And for the money especially in comparison to similar products, it’s a complete and utter steal.

Bottom Line

The Numark Orbit is simple yet complex, and an extremely budget friendly addition for those open to new things. For the money, there’s nothing that comes close.


 

A Second Opinion from Jared Helfer

Since I was fortunate enough, lo these many moons ago, to get my hands on the prototype of the Numark Orbit and record that video back at NAMM, I’ve been awaiting the final release of this product. Mark has provided a very comprehensive review that matches up with my thoughts on the unit, but I wanted to give a better breakdown of the MIDI editing software since, well, I’m a complete nerd and want you all to be complete nerds with me.

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MIDI Editor

My computer right now has a number of hardware MIDI editors. They’ve all come in handy while creating crazy mad scientist style DJ setups that I use for a few weeks and then tear down and rebuild. The MIDI editor for the Orbit is both the best one I’ve ever used, and one of the most frustrating too. Now, I know that I’m one of the very small subsets of the market that uses MIDI editors, so I hope that my thoughts here can find their way into an update from Numark, as well as into editors other manufacturers release.

So first, the good. Upon loading the editor, almost every command sends the same message. I can already hear you all saying “that can’t be good, that’s awful.” If you are diligent, like me, and don’t want to add one of the presets they have already put together, staring at this can be a daunting experience. I mean, there are 16 buttons with 4 banks, and God only knows I don’t want to map all of those commands just to get it to start working, before I have to deal with the headache that is MIDI mapping in Traktor.

Well, Numark has provided a feature in the Orbit Editor called Auto Fill which easily lets me set up each bank of buttons/knobs. All I have to do is set the message for the first command in the bank (the upper left hand button, or the message for K1 for the jog wheel) and hit the Auto Fill button. From here the mapping will automatically set the values of the rest of the buttons ascending, descending or constant, in case I want them to send different values of the same CC. This is awesome. Granted, you need to set the first button of each bank, but still, compared to setting up Pages on the Controller Editor for the Maschine, this is a godsend.

Unfortunately, there are some features missing I would love to have. First, I can’t have the Orbit connected to two different applications at the same time, like I can for Maschine. So, for Maschine, I can build my mapping in Traktor and make any necessary command or color changes in the controller editor at the same time. Since this controller requires me to troubleshoot random issues that might arise, I don’t want to have to keep shutting Traktor down and starting the Orbit software.

Also, if I am using software that does not give me MIDI output (like Serato) I can’t set the Orbit to give me self-feedback based on commands. For example, I would want an internal toggle to turn the button one color when “on” and reset back to the original off state. Unfortunately, I can’t set that up.

I want to make it very clear that this is not me saying the Orbit or the editing software are not good. I really enjoy using the controller and can’t wait to implement it into one of my crazy setups. I just want to have a better fleshed out editor so I can take better control of the hardware to take better control of my software too.

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