It’s not often that we get truly excited about gear, in the DJWORX team. Casting my mind back, the last piece of equipment that got some real discussion going was the reveal of the MODEL1, which had a very ‘Marmite’ reaction. Before that, it was probably the D2s (though the Roland DJ-808 had a good go). The Ableton Push 2 had a literal audible gasp when we saw it in the flesh, thanks to the gorgeous screen. Anecdotally, it seems to help when we actually get something in the studio.

So when we first heard about Denon DJ’s plans to upend Pioneer’s established empire within club booths around the world, eyebrows were reservedly raised. When they candidly discussed details of their ambitions, they had our curiosity. When the UK Denon DJ reps stormed the DJWORX studios with early production units to show off the Prime set, they got our attention. And, when we received a pair of the SC5000 Primes and an X1800, we were eager to put them through their paces.

So what better way to do that, than an actual club setting, for my regular techno party in little old Huddersfield? My first six (or so) hours with Denon’s new Prime setup crescendoed in a banging two hours of filth, coupled with a Boss DD-7 digital delay pedal, and a custom-built PA system. Basically the perfect setting.

There was a bit of worry about using the set in a mission-critical live setting. Not only did we have a total reactor meltdown with the mixer, where everything froze except the playing track, including the master audio volume controls, but while practicing, the link between the players got sketchy, and it failed to read the USB stick across the connection. But even with these things cropping up, it was worth testing the gear out, live.

Preparing your music

First things first, it’s almost unavoidable to have to use Engine Prime, the new music prep software that works with the players. Mark wrote a thorough review of that, so I won’t go into detail, but suffice to say that as it stands, the software is as close to ‘bare-bones’ as can be, and there’s no way I could consider it ready for ‘prime time’ (#dadjoke).

You technically don’t need the software to get going, as the players themselves are able to analyse your music. But since it takes around a minute to do so, and some of the hardware’s features don’t work until it’s done, you really should have everything prepared beforehand. The most annoying niggle I experienced, was that any tracks that weren’t analysed, turned off the sync function, meaning it was easy to forget, wasting valuable time in the mix faffing about. And, even with immense effort trying to make sure everything was analysed and ready, there were STILL tracks that loaded into the player needing to be analysed.

Setting up the gear

I’ve been pretty much exclusively a laptop DJ for near 15 years now, so other than the odd set on ageing CDJs, and a stint owning a pair of Stanton C.324s (which was also my first experience with a SKRATCHWORX review, as a reader and potential buyer), I came into this experience with fresh eyes.

Something that surprised me was that even though a “CDJ” setup is touted as simpler than laptop DJing, with supposedly less chance of failure, and easier to get mixing on, it still felt complicated to set up. One reason would be the fact that you need to have the link cable as well as another audio cable (digital or analogue). Considering gigabit ethernet is pretty much ubiquitous, I’m surprised Denon haven’t gotten audio working through the link cables. It would certainly help reduce cables even further.

We still suffered from cable spaghetti on the table, and I even managed to pull the mixer power cable out when it got caught on an audio cable. I do appreciated that once everything is connected, it’s much easier to just plug in a USB stick and have access to your playlists. But unless you’re in an established club with an install, that’s never really going to happen.

MVPs?

What about the SC5000 Prime players, then?

The first thing to notice on the player would be the touchscreen. It’s a huge 7”, capacitive, multi-touch screen, with a decent resolution, more akin to a smart tablet than anything we’re used to on DJ equipment. Frankly, it puts the CDJ, Kontrol D2, or NS7III screens to shame. And seriously spoils you. Anything else just looks cheap.

The software is pretty much up to the same standard, as well. Navigating the interface is intuitive, with everything you need quickly accessed. And you can make use of the multi-touch for stuff like gesture zooming (pinch-in/spread-out, like you’d expect), or using more than one screen control at the same time. It’s also very handy for using the on-screen keyboard to search your collection. If you’re comfortable typing on an iPad Mini’s screen, then you’ll be at home here.

There’s also a little colour screen in the middle of the jogwheel, which not only shows track progress, but also displays the album art for the playing track. You’re also meant to be able to display a custom image on there, as a small easter egg, but I couldn’t get that to work, unfortunately.

Speaking of ‘jogwheels’, I haven’t been a huge proponent of their use for a while (damn, three years since that article?!), but for the sakes of this test drive, I made use of them via the tempo sync feature. Tempo sync is always an enjoyable hybrid between full on beatmatching and fly-by-wire beat sync, meaning you still need to nudge the tracks. I also decided to avoid beat sync because I don’t trust Engine Prime to analyse my collection without also going through and checking the beatgrids myself. In my spot check while I was preparing my playlists, there were too many grids that were way off (I should note that BPM and beat analysis was usually decent, but Engine Prime does not seem to grasp the concept of where the downbeat is). There’s also the fact you can do spinbacks, which is always fun…

A nice touch (which I know also exists on the Pioneer CDJs) I ended up relying on more than I should is that you can edit the track beatgrids on the players themselves. Holding down the navigation knob enters the beatgrid edit mode, and you can use the knob to nudge the grid per beat, or manually scroll it using the jogwheel. It certainly helps mitigate incorrect beatgrids, but ends up being wasted time.

One of the biggest features Denon DJ talk about with the SC5000, is the addition of another layer you can switch to, so as to have two channels of audio on one player. With hardware media players, this isn’t just adding extra MIDI mappings. Each player has two sets of audio outputs, to plug into the mixer’s digital or analogue inputs.

In practice, the layers work pretty much how they do on a controller, which presents the same issues and limitations. I’ve argued for a while that layers are a compromise. On a professional level (ie playing out to a crowd) they present an increased risk in hitting the wrong button, as I discovered on the night (I hit stop on the wrong layer, thankfully only for a second), when you’ve got four decks playing and it’s all going a big crazy. As such, I was reluctant to use more than two decks at a time, mainly having tracks looping and ready on a third or fourth deck. The experience basically just reinforced my view further.

And… the mixer

Like the players, there are a lot of little touches to modernise the traditional club mixer, beyond being a four-channel, three-EQ, twin-audio-interface layout.

When linked to the players, the channel button LEDs on the X1800 Prime change colour to match the user-profile settings, and as long as you have your audio plugged in with the same configuration as your link ethernet cables, it’s a really handy extra hint at when deck/layer is playing what.

I found it cool that you can delve into the mixer’s utility menu, to tweak many of the parameters. For example, I prefer a flatter response with the channel filter, and you can alter the resonance to taste. There’s also settings for things like MIDI, the effects, channel EQs, and the audio interface. You can get pretty deep into tweaking things, but the defaults are fine unless you’re using the MIDI ports, or effects send/return (which I ended up needing with a Boss DD-7 pedal).

Something I realised is missing from mixers, including this powerhouse of digital beastliness, is a way to record to a USB stick. How are we in 2017, and there’s still no simple way to record straight from a £1,500 mixer to a storage device?

Finally

In the end, as a media player sceptic, would the SC5000 Prime  and X1800 Prime convince me to #changemyrider? Yes, for sure… but with caveats. First, I’d dump the mixer for a Xone:92. That’s not a criticism of the X1800’s quality. Rather, just a statement on my personal taste in club mixers: I’ve never been much of a fan of the “DJM”-style layout.

When it came to the critical moment, the Prime mixer and players held up perfectly, giving me confidence in my DJing after only about four hours with the gear. If it wasn’t for the desktop software, I’d happily use the setup again, should the need arise.

What the experience did, is help me think a bit more about where I’d like DJ gear to go. My complete disinterest in jogwheels was balanced out by the intriguing fusion of mobile technology and modern DJing expectations. I love how plug and play it all is, even though I’d say it should be taken a step further: there are still too many cables. I’d love to see something with the touchscreen, link connections, and media playback, but using the Traktor Kontrol D2 format. If Native Instruments brought out a touchscreen fitted, Traktor embedded, deck controller, that linked to a mixer and other decks, and had all the features of the desktop software, I think I’d ask for four of them…

I also came to the realisation the industry needs an elegant, open, way to connect software/hardware similar to Ableton Link. Something beat-quantised and simple to set up. We now have Ableton Link, Pioneer Link, Denon Link, and Allen & Heath’s X:LINK all doing basically the same thing, but preventing you from mixing and matching. It’s just ludicrous. I’d love to see something like the Raspberry Pi based pink-0, a small box with a BPM display, endless pot for tempo change, and six ethernet ports to connect your Roland TR-8-II, SC5000mk2s, Xone:93. With power-over-ethernet (like X:LINK has), you wouldn’t even need to power it.

Ultimately, I still feel like these media players are a lot of money. I know I’ll get flack in the comments for this, but considering you could get more functionality from a solid laptop, a pair of deck controllers, audio interface, and a nice analogue mixer for the £4,500 the Prime setup will cost you, it’s not even like I’ve witnessed any more stability than with software (though I’ve never really had much issue with any DJ gear). I do wonder if it should be half the price? Then again, people keep buying Pioneer stuff for even more money.