Pioneer DDJ-SZ Serato DJ controller review (7)

LINK: Pioneer DJ  |  PRICE: $1999/€1789/£1649  |  MANUAL: PDF

INTRODUCTION

If you’re a promoter, bar or club, and you need a controller that satisfies the needs of multiple DJs over the course of an event, you should cast an eye over the Pioneer DDJ-SZ. This controller gives you four-deck control over Serato DJ with 206mm jog wheels that look the same as the jog wheels on Pioneer’s flagship CDJs. Not only that, you can attach turntables and CDJs to the DDJ-SZ and either use them to control Serato DJ with timecode. You can even use the DDJ-SZ as a standalone mixer. There are two USB ports so that DJs can connect separate laptops and change between them mid-set without interrupting the music. This makes changeover a doddle if you have two DJs who both need to use laptops, for instance.

Other features include a high-end crossfader with a rotary curve control so that you can set the curve to your exact requirement, some basic built-in effects such as Echo and Filter, and 16 performance pads for triggering Roll effects, samples and hot-cues. There’s a comprehensive looping system for each deck, too. The DDJ-SZ’s feature set is as overwhelming as it is exciting, but I’m not going to list every feature in the intro, so you’ll just have to keep reading and see how we got on with it.

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FIRST IMPRESSIONS

The first thing you feel when you see the DDJ-SZ is excitement. This is a controller with big Pioneer jog wheels, two sets of highly slappable pads, onboard effects and two sets of controls for software effects. The DDJ-SZ provides a tremendous amount of control over Serato DJ, yet nothing on the control panel is intimidating. Quite the opposite, the well-labelled controls invite you to explore the controls’ different modes and functions. Perhaps the only intimidating thing is its size, as the DDJ-Z really is the closest thing to two CDJs and a 12in mixer glued together. It’s surprisingly light, though.

The DDJ-SZ doesn’t feel as high-end as the DJM-900NXS/SRT or the CDJ-2000NXS, and neither do some of the switches, yet the rubberised pots, the pads and the jogs feel great. There are plenty of connections at the back but they’re well spread out thanks to the sheer size of the DDJ-SZ, which means finding the connection you need by feel alone is pretty easy.

When we first got the DDJ-SZ it had old firmware on it and the response of the jog wheels made them suitable for mixing only. I got ready to give it a proper grilling. However, an upgrade to firmware version 1.2 completely changed the unit, making it great for both scratching and mixing, and providing something for everybody.

The DDJ-SZ is also pretty configurable, too. If you enter the unit’s Utility mode, you can change the cut lag of the crossfader, change the amount by which other channels are ducked by the microphone when it’s in Talkover mode, and turn on or off the Serato DJ Fader Start function, among many other options.

One of the biggest benefits of the DDJ-SZ is the ability to use it as a standalone mixer. We had a lot of fun connecting turntables and CDJs to the DDJ-SZ and going old-school with a set of 12ins and CDs. Sadly, we couldn’t route analogue audio through Serato DJ’s software effects units. The Sound Colour effects proved useful, but I found myself missing the well-known beat effects of Pioneer’s DJM mixers.

The DDJ-SZ isn’t perfect, nothing ever is, but as a high-end professional controller I think very few DJs would have any complaints.

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DECK SECTIONS AND JOG WHEELS

The DDJ-SZ’s deck sections will feel familiar to many DJs, especially because of the large 206mm jog wheels. These feel different to the jogs of a typical CDJ because they don’t move with that familiar CDJ-1000 rumble, but they feel great and are responsive. You can also adjust the tension from a tight, heavy feel to a much looser feel. There’s also a pot for adjusting the brake speed of the deck, and you really don’t have to twist it far to the right to get a speed that imitates a Technics SL1210. There’s plenty of scope for creating pointlessly long wind-downs should the mood take you. As mentioned earlier, the latest firmware (1.2 at the time of writing) greatly improved jog wheel latency and makes the jog wheels much better for scratching. I admit to not having Q-Bert’s skills, but even so I had no trouble executing scribbles, cuts, chirps, slow drags, fast cuts and so on. Serato DJ has a big effect on this, but the low latency provided by the DDJ-SZ’s hardware and firmware has a big effect too. I’d still prefer to use a CDJ-1000MK3 or CDJ-2000NXS for scratching, but I certainly wouldn’t turn my nose up at the DDJ-SZ’s jog wheels.

The DDJ-SZ’s pitch fader is smooth enough, although not as smooth as the CDJ-1000’s pitch fader, and while the DDJ-SZ’s pitch fader has a centre detent there’s only a very slight amount of dead space around it.

The neat Needle Search feature makes an appearance here, too. When I used the DDJ-T1’s Needle Search feature I absolutely hated it. If one of your fingers so much as whistled past it when you were using the effects controls the track playing on that deck would jump to another part in an instant. Thankfully, Needle Search on the DDJ-SZ is much improved, making it a highly useful feature. To use Needle Search you must hold the jog wheel and then apply your finger to the search strip to find the bit of a track you want to play. Pressing the Needle Search strip at any other time has absolutely no effect, which is as it should be.

A single button lets you change pitch range and engage the Master Tempo and Tempo Reset functions. These are functions that a DJ will set once and then forget about, so this button is conveniently tucked away at the side of each deck.

Should you be super-dextrous, you can switch to a different deck layers and control up to four different decks with only two jog wheels and deck sections. The DDJ-SZ handles this well, and you can see which deck level you’re currently using thanks to two illuminated buttons. If you want to use Deck 3, for instance, you press the Deck 3 button on the left-hand deck section and that button lights up. If you want to go back to Deck 1 you press the Deck 1 button and everything changes back. The system works well. It’s still possible to get a bit confused, but that’s largely mitigated by the fact there’s a four-channel mixer and that the effects units are divorced from the decks.

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FADERS

The crossfader is great if you’re using it in conjunction with a CDJ or turntable, giving sharp cut-in and little lag. You can adjust the stiffness of the crossfader too, although you’ll need to use a small flathead screwdriver to do so. At its loosest setting the crossfader feels light, and at its tightest setting the crossfader feels like the crossfader on the DJM-800, which is no bad thing when you’re mixing. Even at its tightest setting, however, the DDJ-SZ’s crossfader still feels comfortably loose. The channel faders travel smoothly, although there’s a good degree of resistance that helps you place the fader with precision.

You can also trigger Fader Start in Serato DJ for channel faders and the crossfader. All you have to do is press Shift and open a closed fader for the channel you want to start. If deck 2 is assigned to the right-hand side of the crossfader, for instance, pressing shift and moving the crossfader from the left-hand side towards the right will start the track on deck 2. This is a neat feature that worked well in practise.

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EQs

Each mixer channel except the master has a 3-band EQ with full kill and a 6dB boost. There’s plenty of space of between EQ pots, so there’s less chance of clashing digits when twisting pots. Sadly, the peak meters on each channel are only 10-segment and not the 15-segment variety you get on the higher-end DJM mixers.

MONITORING

It’s great to see both 3.5mm and 6.3mm headphone outputs on the DDJ-SZ, and you can even have two sets of headphones plugged in at the same time, although there’s only one set of controls. In the past, Pioneer mixers explicitly designed for the club have had eardrum-splitting headphone amps, while the headphone amps on Pioneer’s bar- and home-oriented units have generally been less aurally violent. The DDJ-SZ’s headphone amp is a happy medium between the two. There’s a smooth and linear amount of volume from nothing to just below half of the headphone volume pot’s rotation, and then the volume becomes painfully loud. In the club or studio, you’ll have no problem finding the correct volume for you.

Sadly, there’s no split-cue, so you’ll either have to pan in your phones using the crossfade dial or set the crossfade dial to the cue position and cue with one cup on and one cup off. The monitoring system works in the same way that we’ve seen on many mixers and controllers, so you’ll have no problem mixing with it. It’s worth noting that you can hear the effects of the Sound Colour FX on cued channels; you don’t have to cue effects as you would on Pioneer’s DJM mixers.

MICROPHONE

There are two microphone inputs, one a 6.3mm input and the other a Neutrik combo input for a 6.3mm or XLR mic. There are volume controls for each input and a Talkover function for automatically ducking music, but even with the levels set to max, the input from the microphone didn’t sound particularly loud. There’s a 2-band EQ that affects both inputs, and you can pass chatter from the mic through the Sound Colour effects.

TRACK SELECTION

Track selection is an important part of the DJ’s task, so it’s great to see that each deck has a push-button rotary control and two buttons for doing so. The rotary control is for browsing through lists and then selecting a specific track to load into that deck. The two buttons are for going back to a previous list, such as moving back to the Crate list from the track list, and the other is for adding tracks to the Prepare panel (Load Prepare). As with other buttons, these two track selection buttons have a dual purpose. If you press the Load Prepare and Shift buttons you can choose the panels you want to see, such as Prepare, Files and so on. If you press Shift and Back you can change the screen layout.

The only thing you can’t do with the DDJ-SZ is enter a search term; you’ll still need to pound your keyboard to do that. Even so, if you’ve organised your crates well and you know the kind of tunes your audience will want to dance to, the DDJ-SZ makes moving from crate to crate and selecting tunes without touching your laptop a doddle.

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LOOPING

Each deck has a comprehensive looping system, with a big, easily slappable Autoloop button, buttons for halving or doubling the size of the loop, and standard loop In and Out buttons. Hit Shift and those buttons can also let you move a loop or re-enter a loop, among other things. The buttons feel good, and are sensibly grouped together away from other controls, with plenty of space between them. The DDJ-SZ has an overwhelming array of features, but it really didn’t take long for the location of the loop controls to become second nature so that I could press them quickly without really looking.

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EFFECTS

There are two ways you can use effects on the DDJ-SZ. One is to use the controls at the top of each deck section to control effects in Serato DJ, while the other is to use the onboard Sound Colour effects and Oscillator effects. The Serato DJ effects controls only affect audio playing within Serato DJ, while the Sound Colour and Oscillator effects will affect any source, whether it’s a turntable, CDJ or audio from a laptop.

It’s fair to say that the Oscillator effects are a bit tacky, and consist of Siren, Horn, Cymbal and Noise sound effects. Then again, they are useful for signalling the end of a phrase, the start of a breakdown or the conclusion of a mix, but you will feel guilty and dirty for using them. The names of the various effects imply their sound, with Horn making the classic air horn sound and Noise making a decent white noise effect.

You can control the volume and tone of the Oscillator effects using two pots located just underneath the oscillator effect buttons, which means you can press the Noise button to play white noise over the top of the mix and then sweep from lower frequency to higher frequencies. Or if, like me, you’re the type of annoying, boorish nutter who’ll batter the top of a dustbin just because it’s there, you’ll love the Horn effect.

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The Sound Colour effects are post-fader but only for channel faders, not the crossfader. This means that if you have an echo on one channel and that channel is linked to the right-hand side of the crossfader, you won’t be able to hear the effect if you then move the crossfader to the left-hand side. However, you will still be able to hear the effect if you close the line fader for that channel.

The controls for Serato DJ’s effects follow the template we’ve seen many times before, with each deck section having four pots and four buttons arranged in a line above the Needle Search bar. You can assign each of the mixer’s four channels to one or both of Serato DJ’s effects units.

The Serato DJ effects are pre-fader, which means that if you close a fader you won’t hear the effect. If you enable Serato DJ’s Echo effect on a track and drop that track’s fader, for example, you won’t hear the echo tail off. This is a bit annoying, but in the case of the Echo effect you can always use the Echo Sound Colour effect if you want a post-fader echo.

We have no complaints about the DDJ-SZ’s Serato DJ effect controls, and you can control all the effect parameters without having to take your hands off the controller. You can switch between single and multiple effects, for example, or select the effect types you want to use. If you like to make the most of Serato DJ’s effects units, you’ll love the DDJ-SZ.

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PERFORMANCE PADS

Each physical deck has a set of eight performance pads, and all four decks can use a set of pads. The most common use for use for these pads will be to trigger hot-cues, but you can also use the pads to trigger Roll effects, play slices of a track and trigger samples. You can change the pads’ operating mode by pressing one of four buttons, each of which is lit differently to give you an extra visual clue as to the current mode of the pads. As if that wasn’t enough, there are four sub-modes that you can access by pressing a button and Shift at the same time, and these let you play saved loops, enable a loop at when you jump to a hot-cue point and slice a loop, among other things.

The pads feel great, and switching between the various modes is made all the easier by the different colours in which the pads can be illuminated. You can tell at a glance if you’re in regular hot-cue mode, Cue Loop mode or Slicer, so there’s little chance of getting confused by the controls if you’ve spent a bit of time with the DDJ-SZ.

The pads are velocity sensitive, but I found that this had little bearing on Serato DJ, although it may be helpful if you’re using the DDJ-SZ to control some other software. In the context of Serato DJ, the velocity sensitivity is the Velocity Sampler sub-mode. If you hit a pad softly it’ll trigger a sample at a lower volume than if you smack it one. I’m sure magic can be worked with this feature in the right hands, but I can’t help feeling that it’ll be a minor feature for the majority of DDJ-SZ users.

The DDJ-SZ’s performance pads are a massively important feature, and it’s great to have so much choice in the way they’re used. The Roll and Hot-cue modes will get the most use, but the other modes provide great scope for creativity too. If you love mashing up tracks live, you must bang out some tunes on the DDJ-SZ.

SWAPPING LAPTOPS

DJs will have no trouble switching between laptops with the DDJ-SZ thanks to two USB ports at the back of the unit. You can have both connected at the same time, which is ideal if you have two Serato DJ users who want to play back to back and switch sources over the course of their set. However, you can’t use the Sync button to beatmatch tracks playing on different laptops, which means you’ll have to go old-school and use the pitchfaders. There are two buttons, one for selecting computer A and another for selecting computer B. If you have tracks playing in decks One and Three on Computer B they will stop playing if you press the button for Computer A. This is a little annoying, but can be worked around in the booth with a bit of DJ-to-DJ communication.

SERATO DJ DVS

You can use Serato DJ with timecode straight out of the box, and we had no problem controlling all four decks with two turntables and two CDJs. The only problem we did encounter was trying to connect all four external devices to the DDJ-SZ because of the unit’s incredible width, especially with the SL1210’s phono cables being pretty short to begin with. If you want to use two CDJs and two turntables then it’d be best to set up the CDJs on stands and have the turntables flush with the DDJ-SZ. Be aware that there are only two phono inputs, so there’s no scope for four turntable fun, but you can attach up to four CDJs.

USE WITH OTHER SOFTWARE

I used the DDJ-SZ with Traktor using a TSI file downloaded from the Pioneer website. The map was pretty good, and it lets you use essential features such as hot-cues, loops, effects and so on. However, the Slicer function doesn’t work and some buttons, such as Back and Load Prepare, perform very different functions, such as toggling the Snap and Quantise global controls. Still, you’ll be happy if you want to use Traktor Pro 2 every now and again as well as Serato DJ. You won’t, however, be able to use timecode with Traktor.

The DDJ-SZ can function as a regular MIDI controller, so you can, for example, assign the pads to clips in Ableton Live and press them to trigger tracks, samples and so on. This increases the DDJ-SZ’s flexibility as a controller for all DJs.

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CONCLUSION

The DDJ-SZ is overkill if you’re just mixing at home or if you only need a controller and no external decks. True, the extra features of the DDJ-SZ mean that you can grow into a fuller setup if you intend to add CDJs and so on, but most buyers would be better off with a cheaper controller such as the Pioneer DDJ-SX2 or the Native Instruments Kontrol S8.

However, if you regularly use your controller at gigs and parties with other DJs, and you need the flexibility granted by the DDJ-SZ’s many connection options, then it’s the controller for you. We found swapping laptops to be a smooth process, the DDJ-SZ’s jog wheels to be top-notch (post-firmware update) and the looping and performance controls to be well laid out. Sure, the DDJ-SZ doesn’t feel as high-quality as a CDJ-2000 and DJM-900 setup, but it’s a quarter of the price of that setup, and it feels high-end for a controller. I’ve no doubt that it’ll perform well in a club setting.

If you want a controller that does everything, and does it well, buy the DDJ-SZ.

RATINGS

Quality – Doesn’t have the high-end feel of a separate DJM-900 and CDJ setup, but this is a fraction of the price. Still, it feels great for a controller.

Features – The DDJ-SZ’s two USB ports make DJ swap-overs a doddle, while the responsive jog wheels and crossfader make scratching and mixing a pleasure. The DDJ-SZ has all the features a DJ could want and need.

Value – Good value considering the features it has but not every user will want or make need of them, making cheaper controllers a better value prospect for many home and studio buyers.

Pros — A good crossfader with a proper curve dial, great jog wheels, lots of space between controls, well-implemented Needle Search function and you can use the unit as a standalone mixer.

Cons – No beat effects or external effects loop, and the sheer size of it makes connecting and using CDJs and turntables alongside it difficult.

THE BOTTOM LINE

The DDJ-SZ has all the high-end features you could want in a Serato DJ controller making it ideal for use in clubs and bars, but there are cheaper controllers that are better value for home and studio use.

GALLERY


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