Link: Vestax – Price: $999 /€799 /£629
In the first of 2 full reviews from different writers, legendary UK DJ, producer and remixer and now photographer Paul Dakeyne temporarily joins the DJWORX team and casts his very experienced eyes and ears over the Vestax VCI-400. And took a handful of pictures too. I hope it’s not the last time we see him round these parts either.
The Vestax pedigree for ground-breaking DJ controllers is set firm in the consciousness of users themselves and the industry in general. The VCi range has proved itself worthy of both high-end professional use and easing new blood talent into the bigger arena. When the VCI-400 made its first UK appearance at the BPM show in 2011, myself and other reviewers placed it in the top 3 of the “how ‘bout that…” list at the after-show drinks get together. The unit’s main USP was clear as day, being the world’s first multi DJ software device to ship with a relatively blank top panel interface. This then can be used with the provided physical overlays enabling users to switch between the likes of Serato Intro, Traktor Pro and Virtual DJ or adapting a blank overlay to customize for any MIDI capable application.
The VCI-400 locks together the very best of what a kick-butt, 21st Century DJ controller should be. Two Vestax tried and trusted control platters are switchable to operate between a default two, then up to four decks where the utilized software allows. The unit boasts four individual deck faders, a crossfader, full 3-band EQ, Gain, Monitoring and Master controls plus a simple to use and logical crate navigation and track load feature. In addition, a comprehensive panel set dedicated to expressive manipulation of loops, cue-points, multi-effects, dedicated filter control and sample playback options where needed are logically laid out and easily accessible. It’s no shrinking violet when it comes to build quality and a sizeable, reassuring ‘pro’ style fascia either, but remains light enough to be truly portable for traveling DJ/Producers visiting gig venues and project studios alike.
The VCI-400 also makes its mark as the company’s first unit to use the new Bit Perfect Audio protocol, offering a next-generation (digital audio conversion) jump up in overall sound quality outputted from such DJ oriented devices. Of particular note as I write this review is that Vestax just announced an April ’12 firmware update that takes the VCI-400 into the ability of operating as a stand-alone hardware mixer, negating the need to run any form of software to run external audio sources through the hardware – As if that wasn’t ‘wowza’ enough, channel’s C & D will be able to run DVS systems too, making the value for money factor off the proverbial hook.
Build & Features
The VCI-400 is a metal monster – tough as ol’ boots and whilst winning no prizes for the most minimal, aesthetic layout ever, it rocks its big gun controls on and around the work area, safely housed by the full metal chassis and solidly bolted together. The Vestax jog wheels have been long-time favourites of many controllerist DJ’s and, here on the 400, adding (coarse/fine) touch sensitivity control and a central rubber screw to adjust torque as well. Vestax have found that wonderful balance between resistance and freeflow movement in the unit’s faders too, with the main 4 channel one’s being stiff enough for subtle fade movements and the crossfader offering that fine threshold area of ‘flickability’ (not loose, but not holding a fast movement back).
The 3-band EQ, channel Trim, Master and FX knobs are the VCI’s most luxurious controls, offering a lovely rubber grip feel to them and seem to be bolted to the inner chassis very firmly. The tough plastic knobs elsewhere on the top panel are decent quality too but seem to have a slight degree of play in them, rocking side to side when used perhaps a tad aggressively, especially on the front panel cue/master/level ones. The four major red filter knobs however bring back the luxury element for sure, being wide and chunky, sweeping the audio signal through lo-pass and hi-pass, elegantly and smoothly. Accessing quick switch parameters is an important necessity for DJ’s and the VCI-400 fires on all cylinders in this department. Vestax provide two types of feel for the unit’s two main areas, with the default loop and cue (square and rectangular) buttons being flush, large, illuminated of course and offer a gorgeous sounding and positive ‘click’ response when tapped in anger. Underneath the jog-wheels, the transport play, pause, cue and sampler default buttons are more raised from the metal panel, a touch more rubbery in feel and have a ‘muted’ click response. The much smaller (though no less accessible) PFL, FX selector, Sync, Load and Vinyl buttons return to the noisier click/response variety.
The rear of the VCI-400 is where most in and out connections happen and a choice of Pro standard, balanced XLR’s or unbalanced ¼” jack outs can be utilised, but one may feel a trick was missed here with the secondary output connectors having no top panel volume control to act as perhaps a dedicated ‘booth’ output. Should a DJ wish to engage in that tried and trusted technique of adding personality to voice, two multi-connectivity sockets for microphones are available too, each with their own volume control. Two stereo phono connectors bring external line level inputs (sorry, no record deck pre-amp direct in), accommodating such devices as CD and MP3 players etc. Again two individual switches flick the channel’s C and D between monitoring any software third and fourth deck, or bypassing those and allowing these line level devices through.
With the firmware update mentioned in this review’s introduction, come April 2012, the VCI-400 will be able to operate without any computer or software running of course – a feature that will greatly add to the unit’s flexibility should DJ’s find themselves in perhaps unexpected circumstances or just feel like a change. Rounding off the rear panel connections is a handy Kensington lock feature, the obligatory USB connection and the 7.5V DC power socket (the unit has to be wall powered by the way, not able to draw enough power USB wise from a computer to run the massive amount of features involved).
Spinning the 400 round to its front panel, we find the tiny, but useful jog-wheel sensitivity knobs, plus the singular crossfader curve adjustment too. Directly beneath deck channel’s C and D are the rather modest looking but powerful 3-way ‘Mode’ switches. These select the functionality of the VCI’s track pad area (the default loop and cue point section) into three different MIDI banks. This feature alone increases the custom mapping possibilities for advanced controllerism up to a quantum level. Finally on the front, two larger push/pull recessed knobs sweep between cue or master choice of monitoring and volume level itself and sit next to the ¼” jack headphone connector.
Vestax ship the VCI-400 with a copy of Virtual DJ LE 4 Decks software. Bundled in the box too are overlays for the aforementioned software plus Traktor 2, Serato Intro and a blank overlay as well so users can immediately create their own custom MIDI mapping. MIDI map templates are available via download from the Vestax support page for numerous DJ apps such as Traktor Pro 2, MixVibes, TORQ 2 and Deckadance etc. For the purpose of this review I used Traktor and Serato Intro to try out the hardware. Serato Intro doesn’t really stretch the VCi to its maximum potential, being that it is a two deck system with limited effects, though with a very useful sample player. Intro is a very decent, free and ‘get started’ solution however and not everyone has access to Traktor Pro so let’s dive in and see how the combination fares.
Serato Intro and the VCI-400
No template is necessary when starting up Serato Intro with the VCI-400, simply plug in and start playing (and very intuitive it is too). Virtual crate navigation and track selection/loading couldn’t be simpler too and performing a tight, sync locked mix follows soon after. In use, those Vestax platters truly rock, and once customized to a user’s own personal torque and sensitivity settings, become fluid and organic beneath the fingers. Flicking said jog wheel’s between ‘vinyl’ and ‘non-vinyl’ mode give deck rewind and a pretty darn tight scratch capability for the former, and a wide sensitivity range for tempo teasing and nudging in the latter mode.
Access to Intro’s limited but handy six FX is handled easily with the VCI allowing effect on/off , type selection and parameter adjustment too. Instant cue point entry, re-triggering and subsequent clearing if needed again is an almost effortless (and accurately portrayed) task whilst the loop triggers allow ¼ bar to two bar auto looping, again fast and tight. It should be noted that the EQ’s when using this hardware with Serato Intro offer absolute, full kill on all three frequency bands. It’s possible therefore to take the audio signal to zero using these individual tools, which is great for dropping and building potential crowd hysteria moments in a DJ’s room at suitable song points. The four ‘Intro’ Sample Decks are controlled well also with the four already assigned buttons found in the main transport area. The buttons trigger any loaded samples and holding shift applies the MIDI note off to end the audio stream.
Mentioned earlier was the fact that Vestax have incorporated an audiophile DAC philosophy into the VCI-400 and listening at full throttle in a project studio environment adds real user experience to back that up. Without getting too deep into the math, this system bypasses the degrading principle of up and down-scaling bit rates in audio signals, usually leaving the outputted sound not a true representation of the original 44.1 KHz CD source, making the actual outputted sound as close to it’s title of Bit Perfect Audio as possible. What results in real life and to these ears is basically the best sound I’ve ever heard from a DJ controller and audio interface combination – nuff said.
Grooving with Traktor
Second test scenario then involved loading up Traktor Pro, adding the relevant .tsi file into the program’s controller manager preferences. When a first track is added to one of the virtual decks, I noticed pressing play shot the full volume of said track into the speakers despite the relevant channel fader being fully zero’d. Just a quick flick of the fader up and down reset that minor glitch however, and similar in fact to a bass reset necessary for some reason as well, but a word to the wise as they say. Moving on then, although the VCI tested here was a demo model without physical overlays in the box (unlike the retail version), leaving the pdf template for Traktor in view close by helped me track the top panel hardware controls. How accurate was the template suggested plug and play aspect then? Already having a good idea how well the VCI works for standard DJ functionality mentioned above with Serato Intro then, I checked out a few of the features that Traktor is renowned for.
Loop Recorder within the software is a valid sonic grabbing tool and the VCI uses the section top, middle and just below the Master volume to handle it. Hitting ‘Rec’ grabs a specified size of audio loop length (via tapping the ‘size’ button) and fires it back into the mix at a level decided by the wet/dry fader. This is a crazy useful little tool for spontaneous tracking dynamic remixing, bypassing the more carefully crafted Sample Deck for pure, spur of the moment shenanigans – handled really well by the VCI. Traktor Pro’s legendary and frankly awesome FX bank is serviced well via the Vestax hardware. The main volume level of effect signal, added to individual control of either a 3-stack of separate FX or 3-parameter control of just one, again shows the VCI in favourable light.
The all-important 4 deck feature of Traktor shines too, with the Vestax platters super-accurately addressing Deck’s C&D (after switching selector switches of course) for tempo nudging, beat mixing purposes. But, what was both surprising and disappointing is that there seems no functional way of back cueing or scratching a track when the ‘vinyl mode’ is engaged. Said mode actually stops the playing track which seems a big no-no, but then offers no expected ability to do any form of traditional scratching. The latter seems very odd indeed but I could find no way to activate this feature anywhere in the software or by a web search. Considering the freely available .tsi file should make the whole package work instantly out of the box, it’s a first negative for this combination so far. Unfortunately, a second negative soon appeared when loading up samples into Traktor’s Sample Deck bank (which replace Deck’s C&D for their purpose).
The template allocated trigger buttons for the Sample Decks didn’t work at all, despite trying hitting the shift button in combination and again, going through software preferences etc. If addressed via the laptop, the audio from these decks triggered fine, but unfortunately, not with the buttons they were supposed to work with.
Back on the plus side of the fence, the other standard features of Loop adjustment and entry plus Cue point instigation and re-triggering operated without a glitch with the Traktor and VCI combination, likewise all ‘everyday’ DJ functionality as expected.
Headphone Monitoring Comparison
An interesting comparison between how the two differing pieces of software behave when outputting headphone monitoring provided some significant results.With Serato Intro, running a few test PFL signals through the headphone socket illustrated that the overall volume level output for headphone monitoring to be a tad under-powered for my taste. The actual volume control felt under sensitive in adjustment too, both factors adding to thinking in a loud club environment, strong, loud monitoring may not be fully achieved. Traktor 2 was quite the opposite however, being so loud at full volume, listening in a review studio environment I couldn’t leave the phones on for more than a few seconds – worth pointing out I’d reckon.
Built like a tank, the Vestax VCI-400 is quite probably the most future-proof controllerist solution out there at the moment. Out of the box flexibility with standard mappings (despite the unexpected, and probably quite curable misgivings with Traktor) add to the literally endless bespoke MIDI mapping possibilities for this unit. It is portable enough without being demure and lightweight, has incredible sonic quality at its main outputs, and has enough control parameters to keep the most technical of deck wizards happy when working a nightclub environment. It isn’t the ultimate scratch or turntablist solution of course, but those platters (when running with the right software) can take a fair degree of punishment without cue point drift being too noticeable. For me personally, I’d say the only downside with the feature packed top panel is that whenever I reached for the ‘Sync’ button, I found it tucked away a bit too much behind the chunky filter knobs. In this day and age, such an important button really should be more easily accessible but I guess with time, its location may become second nature so negating my original concern.
Target audience for the VCI-400 is without doubt the more capable of bedroom/project studio jocks and multi-level Pro’s too of course. There are many other options for beginners to ground themselves with the DJ’ing basics and the 400 would be a definite next level solution for most. I’m assuming the DJWORX Editor* or NI themselves will holla back regarding the problems I found with Traktor, but that aside, I’m a big fan of the VCI-400, especially with the promise of a stand-alone mixer functionality coming very soon.
*I had exactly the same experience. And this review has been fact checked by Vestax so we can only surmise that this the default behaviour. A different MIDI map will doubtless yield different results. Mark Settle – Editor.