Link: Vestax – Price: $999 /€799 /£629
The 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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 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 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
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?
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.
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 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.