Sunday, January 8, 2012

Numark IDJ Live

Unless you have been on a spiritual quest in a Himalayan monastery all year, you have surely seen the iDJ Live. The iPad midi controller was debuted earlier this year at NAMM and caused quite a stir. Many videos from NAMM showed the controller physically moving the decks in the DJAY app, and that alone generated a lot of curiosity and excitement about the device.

Algoriddim and Numark have been hard at work, and have deservedly passed the rigorous certification process with Apple. The iDJ is sturdy, well built, and entirely capable of putting together good mixes. Most, if not all, of the controls we expect in a midi controller are present.

Let’s all be honest about why we are interested in the iDJ Live. We’re interested because it works with our iPhones and iPods. Don’t get me wrong, I love the iPad, but I can’t put it in my pocket, and it is still not the most truly mobile of devices. Every time I pick it up, I’m beset with the fear of damaging it. If you have an iPad and DJAY, you already have a fun DJ rig. The iDJ Live is a nice “accessory”, but it ain’t “necessary.” I have DJAY on my iPod, and a slew of other apps. They are fun and perform well, but those little tiny controls just aren’t cutting it. (Pun intended) To bring out the power of DJing with the iPhone or iPod, you need a physical controller. As you may have noticed in the most recent promo video, the demo was done with an iPhone.
First Impressions
Numark idj live review

The iDJ Live gives you the impression that Numark is testing the waters of I-device connected controllers before going into full development mode, and nobody can blame them for being cautious. They've had other controllers that had “I” connections which may have done OK, but failed to gain the support of the seasoned DJ crowd. Those other controllers were not paired with the DJAY app, which was voted into the app “Hall of Fame.” The iDJ Live is an ION Discover DJ that has had its connector changed from USB to 30 pin. Considering the cost, I have no qualms about calling the Discover DJ “incredible,” and would gladly recommend it to anyone. On the subject of the Discover DJ; don’t get any bright ideas about using it with a camera connection kit. Although the two controllers send the same midi data, DJAY will not recognize the camera kit.

The simplicity of the iDJ Live not only keeps the cost down, and makes it accessible to everyone. It also keeps the need for power low enough to facilitate a little over 2 ½ hours of use with a fully charged iPod Touch. Your results may vary, and I have not actually clocked the usage time. That is simply a rough estimate of how long I could scratch and juggle before the “battery at 20%” message began to come up. It took me long enough to get ‘round to some really useful information, huh? Obviously battery life will depend on your device and version of iOS.

Numark idj live review

Speaking of useful information, let’s talk about the controls on the device and how well they perform. I somehow get the feeling that you all are expecting me to say “this is a $100 controller and it feels like one.” I can’t say that, though. The build quality is solid. The performance is solid and really borders on excellence. That is not to say that there aren’t weak spots.

The Achilles heel of the iDJ, which rears its ugly head far too often, is the proximity of the “play, sync, and cue” buttons to the crossfader. You will hit these buttons by accident occasionally when moving the crossfader. It will frustrate you. The small and compact design also means that at some point you will accidentally touch the jog wheels while mixing. The jog wheels have scratch and browse (scrub) mode, and touching the jog in either mode will surely move the track enough to upset a mix.
Numark idj live review

Everything you want on your midi controller is not here. This is a small controller. There is only so much real estate, and not everything made the cut. The feature most notably absent, particularly since it plays a big role in making DJAY stand out in the crowd, is looping. There are no looping controls on the iDJ live. None. Not one, not any. I feel compelled to ask Numark in what universe do DJs exist that don’t want to use loops. Loops are sort of the “gateway drug” of digital DJing. The average noob may not understand what a “hot cue” is, but they get it when you say “loop.”

I would have preferred to see the pitch buttons appropriated as LOOP, and ran my pitch controls from the device, since I will be using SYNC for most of the beat-matching anyway. If I had gone and dropped $100 on this, having seen many videos with Numark employees talking about everything on the controller corresponding to the software, and then I got it home and saw that there were no loop controls on the device, I would not be happy.
Numark idj live review

The other neighborhood regular who isn’t at the clubhouse today is our good old friend PITCH slider. There are PITCH BEND buttons on the controller, and they work quite well in fact. I found it easy to get tracks close by using these buttons, but compared to most bend buttons, their behavior is a bit too dramatic to get them exactly on beat. Holding the minus button for about 3 seconds will bring the track to an almost complete stop. This makes for some interesting “brake” tricks, and makes these buttons almost fall into the category of FX more than pitch control. You can, of course, permanently change the speed with the on-screen speed slider in the app.
Numark idj live review

What controls are on it? I’m glad you asked. You get a master volume. You have GAIN on each track, but they actually go to the input faders in the App, not the GAIN in the EQ. There are high and low EQ, which means you still have to open the EQ in the app. What’s the point of having two EQ controls on the device when the EQ has three sections in the software? This reminds you that this controller was originally designed to “look the part,” but not truly perform as a serious mixing controller.
Numark idj live review

There is a track BROWSE knob/button in the middle, and LOAD buttons beneath it. The behavior of the load A/B buttons has been wisely linked to the crossfader. The software will remember the crossfaders’ last absolute left or right position and attempt to help you not load a new song into the track that is playing through the master out. It’s not an exact science just yet, because you may want to load a track while the CF is in the middle, but it’s a nice feature. So if the crossfader is at the right (deck B), and you push the track browse button (it’s a button and a knob), select a track and hit the LOAD B button, the track will actually load into deck A. This will happen regardless of deck B playing or not.

In the center of the controller is a SCRATCH/SEARCH button. SEARCH function scrubs the play position through the track, and does it at just the right velocity to make finding and setting cue points a breeze.
Numark idj live review

To the right and left of the crossfader is a vertical row of four buttons. From top to bottom, they are SYNC, SET, CUE/PLAY, and PLAY. SYNC will change the play speed and align the beats. There is one thing I don’t like about the sync. If you have the same track on both decks, and use sync, it will jump the track being “synced” to the same play position as the other one. This seems entirely un-necessary. SET is self-explanatory. It sets the hot-cue to the current play position. CUE/PLAY operates as expected; jumping to the cue and continuing playback if the track is playing, and playing “while held” if the track is stopped.
Jog Wheel
Numark idj live review

The feather in the cap for iDJ Live, its’ creators and collaborators, is the Jog Wheel design and performance. It sounds funny, even to me, to say that out of the multitude of midi controllers available to us today, my favorite jog wheel would be on the least expensive of the lot. I love everything about these jogs. They are the perfect size. The circular grooves provide an ideal tactile control, and subliminally evoke thoughts of vinyl. These jogs don’t just look and feel good, though. They perform on par with many controllers that might, on the surface, appear to be in a different class. As I mentioned before, I have owned the Discover DJ. I mapped that controller to several different programs and found the jog performance to nearly match all other controllers. That same level of control is present here. Prepare to be impressed by the accuracy of stabs and drags done with the iDJ Live.
Numark idj live review

What good is Jog Wheel performance without a nice crossfader to match it? The crossfader is smooth and surprisingly light. It has a cut-in distance of about two millimeters. I know someone will surely make a video just to prove me wrong ( I did - Gizmo), and I’m not saying it is impossible, but I am saying it’s improbable that you will be crabbing with the iDJ. The aspect of the CF that I do not like, and you will probably agree, is the slightly over-sized and “boxy” fader cap. I suppose there is a reason for it being designed that way, but I don’t know what that reason is.
Numark idj live review

When you open the box, you will also find the often discussed and more often misunderstood splitter cable. It plugs into the headphone out and separates the audio into two separate cables and signals. One cable/connector is black; that’s the master out. One cable/connector is red; that’s the headphone out. Tap the preferences button between the two waveforms in the DJAY app and you will see an option to turn on SPLIT OUTPUT. You need go into the SETTINGS tab, then into the ADVANCED tab. There you will see an option to turn on “Show Cue/Mix Slider” Turn this on and then go back to the preferences. Now in the Pre-Cueing options you will see a slider called CUE/MIX. This is where you set the behavior for cueing in the headphones, and determine if you only hear the cue track or the soon-to-be-complete “mix.” I hope that explains it, but it probably won’t. Just know that you get the splitter cable, and you get all the needed options in the software to properly cue in the headphones.
Summing Up
Numark idj live review

What are my over-all thoughts on the iDJ Live? And more importantly, do YOU want/need one? If you have an iPhone or iPod Touch, yes, you absolutely want/need one. The performance as a portable scratch device alone, justifies the price of admission. If you have an iPad, the decision is not so clear. Since so many of the iPad version of DJAY features are not on the device, and you will constantly be returning to the iPad to access those features, the decision to get one is not so cut and dry. Plus, I am not so fond of having a cable connected to my iPad while anywhere but home, and that cuts down the portability factor of the device. That doesn’t mean that the iDJ Live isn’t a nice addition to DJAY on the iPad. I have already been doing some cool tricks like one-handed juggles, where I trigger cues on the iPad with one hand, and work the both jog wheels with the other.

There really is a lot going on in the iPad version of DJAY, and the physical crossfader and jogs add a lot of control that you don’t get with only the touchscreen, but given the “temporary” feel of the iDJ Live, as it relates to the iPad, I would consider waiting until a controller specifically designed for all the iPad shows up. I think it’s safe to assume that a controller like that is in the works. I should also say that these thoughts on getting an iDJ Live are directed to those who already have some type of laptop DJ set-up. For those of you looking at getting your first DJ rig, the iDJ Live and an iPad are nothing short of a dream come true.