Vestax VCI-400 Controller Review

Link: Vestax – Price: at launch $999 /€799 /£629

Preface

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.

NAMM 2013 Vestax VCI-400 Serato DJ VCI-380 red (7)

Introduction

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.

Connectivity

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 Vestax VCI-400 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 VCI-400 In Use

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 Vestax VCI-400

No template is necessary when starting up Serato Intro with the Vestax 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.

Audio Perfection

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.

Feature Test

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.

Summary

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.

Introduction

The Vestax VCI-400 is an interesting beast to review, to be sure. In this day and age, reviewing a controller tends to be just as much about reviewing the software included as it is about the hardware in question, making the controller almost less of a centerpiece than what it has a relationship with. Even if it only comes with beginner software, the upgrade path dictates that you will be mostly focusing on what it is tied to, and less about the possibilities. While the VCI-400 has no special magic pixie dust that allows you to map in ways you can’t with other controllers, it does have a few tricks up its sleeve that should make you reconsider your notions about what controller you should be purchasing.

First Impressions

Out of the box, there are no real surprises. USB cable, quick start guide, manual, software CD and power adapter. There is also a pack of overlay stickers that come in the box which conform to the “standard” mappings that Vestax provides “just to get you started”. The overlay stickers themselves leave a bad impression at first, feeling somewhat cheap and sticker-like, but there is actually a benefit to their thinness. Applying them, they essentially bleed into the paint job, as if they are not even there. Kudos.

The included power adapter is something of a mixed bag. On one hand, the rotating plug is rather genius, allowing you to fit your adapter in almost any tight power strip. On the negative side, would it have killed them to make it just a hair longer? Given that the unit cannot be bus powered, having a long power lead is a huge nice to have, and, having played out with it, I would have loved to have even a few more centimeters of length.

The unit itself is built like a tank. No exceptions – this may be the best built piece of gear I have owned since my 1200’s. From the 3mm thick upper chassis to the nutted pots, it feels like it could be used as a weapon. It is the kind of gear that makes you feel “pro” just by virtue of holding it

Pots/Faders/Buttons/Bits

Vestax is known for having some of the highest quality faders in the business, and the VCI-400 doesn’t disappoint… but it doesn’t set the bar high either. Each fader is a short-body Alpha style fader, and it can be estimated that the life span is about the same as the average (100k cycles). The crossfader is loose, but not overly so. You can scratch with it, but don’t expect an Innofader. The line faders, while appearing to be the same, are very heavily dampened. You aren’t going to be cutting on them, but they are a dream to mix with.

The pots on the VCI-400 are all chassis-nutted with metal stems, and all feel quite durable. Smartly, the faceplate sits raised above an inner chassis where the pots are nutted, with the knobs sinking in just a hair. This should lead to less chance of breakage from a lateral hit.

The buttons on the VCI-400 sit between two styles, a soft rubber and a hard plastic. The button style makes sense for each location, with the soft rubber buttons sitting in what is typically mapped in the transport section and the hard plastic buttons sitting in what would likely be mapped to hot cues. The larger hard plastic buttons rest very low above the switch, making rapid triggering a doddle. The soft rubber transport buttons, while feeling more comfortable, are a little less suitable for rapid fire button presses, with their travel a bit longer and their wobble a bit higher. That said, for general Play/Cue commands, they are extremely comfortable.

Platters

Vestax pretty much set the standard as to what people expect as far as how a MIDI controller platter should feel, and the VCI-400 is no slouch. The platters feel ridiculously solid, and the included tension control mechanism is quite smart. What looks to be a decorative center section is actually a tensioning disc, and allows for the platter to be locked down almost to the point of not being able to move it, or you can make it extremely loose as well. The top plate is finished in a grooved painted finish that, while not feeling like vinyl, gives an immediately familiar feel and gives a great amount of finger “stick”. The outer portion of the platter is not touch sensitive, and has enough extra space around the edges that you shouldn’t have to worry much (if at all) about accidently triggering a scratch message when pitch bending. The platter LED’s do not provide any sort of positional information, but instead tell of platter touch state. That said, they are very attractive, and I’m glad they are there.

Audio Interface

Vestax will mention, any time they have the chance, their new XMOS powered audio interface. To the average consumer, XMOS is just another company, with no real meaning if it doesn’t sound good. So, how does it sound? Good. Very very good. The audio coming out of the Vestax VCI-400 is punchy clear. Putting it next to my Mbox 2 (not the best or the worst performing interface, I know), the VCI-400’s output is louder, clearer and overall better. Put next to the Native Instruments S4, the performance difference is reduced, but the VCI-400 does get a win with a slightly more clinical clarity and overall better transient response. I was able to run the interface at 24bit/48k at 64 samples latency with zero issues on my mid-tier 2011 Macbook Pro over the month of testing. I didn’t test the ASIO drivers, but hopefully they will perform up to standard as well.

Aftermarket faders (Modding)

The question always pops up eventually-“Can I put an Innofader/Pro X Fade in there?”. The answer is no. The space for the faders is incredibly tight, and neither will fit. But wait, there is hope!!!!!

For the review, I was provided both a Vestax CF-X2 magnetic fader and a prototype Mini-Innofader, and both work and work VERY well. The CF-X2 is plug and play, and feels amazing. The cut in time is superb, and the feel is suitably loose. Honestly, it made me realize how much the scratch performance of a controller really depends on the fader, as my platter performance did not improve yet I suddenly felt like D-Styles. A tired, possibly hung over D-Styles, but you get the idea.

The Mini-Innofader required a modification in the circuit (but the molex connector fit perfectly and required no re-wiring), but this won’t be an issue with retail units. The fader does mount from the bottom however, so one needs to either machine a bracket or hope that Audio Innovate come out with an Innobender for this model. Again, scratch performance was improved tenfold, and the feel was quite lovely. Either option would be an excellent choice.

In Use (Bundle)

Included in the box is an install of Virtual DJ LE, as well as a download card for Serato DJ Intro, so it makes sense to start there. While neither is at the top of the food chain, both give a rather pleasant user experience.

VIRTUAL DJ:

Virtual DJ LE provides a mapping that is good, albeit a little bit unadventurous. I know I have seen hot cue mappings on VDJ LE with more than 3 cue points, so it feels like something of a waste to dedicate the entire performance button grid to loops. That said, platter performance is reasonable, and the skin itself is very attractive, matching the unit one to one. For video DJ’s, the “loop deck” section provides a pretty comprehensive set of video commands, making the controller a pretty good choice for the VJ set. As well, with the analog inputs, one could use the VCI-400 as a centerpiece in a DVS VJ setup.

All in all, Virtual DJ itself is a rather underrated program, and it does feel like something of a waste to use so few advanced features (you don’t get anything that the default Virtual DJ skin gives you). The VCI-400 is a good platform to show off, so it might be worth considering when it comes time for the VDJ 8 refresh.

SERATO DJ INTRO

Serato DJ Intro provides a limited experience feature wise, but the software does have more room to breathe on the VCI-400 than many other controllers. As such, you get unlayered direct access to almost every feature, making the software a more pleasurable experience than on the Typhoon/Mixtrack/Mixdeck/etc. You only get a few FX, but the FX themselves sound quite good, and you do get the benefit of a dedicated channel filter. Platter performance is, as expected, tight as hell. One thing that gave me entertainment to no end was the fact that the virtual platter reacted one to one with the actual platter, so anyone coming from vinyl should have less of an issue with the nuances of scratching and having the unit react in a very similar manner. Crossfader performance was good as well, though it was a little bit “softer” than other applications. It might be good for Serato to look at this in the future. I will say that I do wish this were an ITCH controller at times, as the VCI-400 would make a hell of a 4-deck ITCH unit, and Serato DJ intro currently feels like a great introduction with a dead end.

In Use (Everything Else)

Now, I’m guessing that if you are looking at the VCI-400 you are not looking at it for the bundled software. I’m quite happy to report that the VCI-400 plays well with others, in spades.

MIXVIBES

Mixvibes played very well with the supplied mapping, though there were quite a few unused buttons. I’m actually at a loss as to what to say in this section-it worked. Perhaps version 2.0 will offer more to report, as the feature set is far more comprehensive. If you are a Mixvibes fan, you will be happy, as there really isn’t a controller out there that offers more direct access to the internal feature set

DJAY

Much like Mixvibes, DJay doesn’t offer the most comprehensive feature set to use with the VCI-400. That said, the application itself is just “fun”, and the VCI-400 very much gives it a chance to shine. Platter performance is, as expected, very good, though the on-screen platter does not correspond one to one with the movements of the physical platter. Please look into that Algoriddim?

DECKADANCE

Oh Deckadance. You keep on getting lost in the shuffle, which is a very sad thing considering how comprehensive the feature set is. The VCI-400 provides one of the best arguments I have ever seen that Deckadance can stand up to the big boys feature wise. Everything is very well thought out and placed with the mapping, and you even get direct access to the relooper resequence/glitch effect that Deckadance seems to be known for. The only major let down is the platter. The performance is awful. I can’t say it another way. Hopefully this will be sorted out with version 2.0.

TRAKTOR

Now, on to Traktor. The included mapping works. It has features. It feels good. You were not wondering about all that though, so I’ll skip to the good stuff. This is, hands down, the most well thought out controller I have ever seen as far as selective layering of MIDI commands. Each “deck” runs essentially in flat mode (the “Shift” buttons don’t change the MIDI messages), but the deck switch buttons change channel and note/CC assignments, giving you a great deal of available commands in a logical way that you won’t get lost with. The transport controls also have their own hard shift button, making it possible to map multiple types of controls to the transport buttons with eighteen possible buttons across three layers. The mixer runs in flat mode, with no dedicated shift layers, making mapping quick and easy, and leaving any sort of shift layering to the modifiers (as it should be). Platter performance is good, and can be mapped to provide quite worthy scratch performance. It isn’t an S4, but it is some of the better performance I have found outside of a controller outside of NI’s “approved” list.

Versus the S4

Since this seems to be a hot topic, let’s tackle this head on. If you don’t require great scratch performance, are not using DVS and will be making your own mappings, the VCI-400 is the better controller. It sounds better, is better built and the overall performance is superb. One can argue that you can remap your S4 as well, but if you do this you go into MIDI mode, losing the platter performance that was a deciding factor in the first place.

If you are a DVS user, things do get a bit trickier, as the S4 will act as a Traktor-Scratch certified mixer. As it stands, you have to use the VCI-400 as a controller only with an Audio 4/6/8/10 as your DVS box, losing the Xmos-powered interface. With the analog mixer upgrade however, you will be able to run your NI audio interface into your VCI-400 and use it as a very capable analog mixer complete with filters. You will have to play with your routing a bit so you can cue (cue and volume will essentially be routed into groups of two), but it does work, and you will get an amazingly re-mappable controller.

In a Nutshell

The Vestax VCI-400 feels almost like the granddad coming back and showing the young whippersnappers how things are done. With more controller options than ever begging for your hard-earned money, the market is crowded and confusing as hell. The VCI-400 may not be the most adventurous controller out there, but it is laid out in such a way that it just feels like it was made for your software, whatever software it is. As well, you won’t find a better built, or arguably better sounding controller on the market, period.

At the end of the day, everyone wants their own signature piece of DJ gear, one with their name on it, that is mapped out to function exactly as they think and matches their ideal workflow. If you are willing to roll up your sleeves, the VCI-400 is capable of being that controller. And that, my friends, is a pretty spectacular achievement.