Toys vs. Tools – Closing the “Pro Gear Gap”

Where do you draw the line between what counts as “beginner gear” as opposed to “pro gear”?

Only a few years ago, there was a much clearer line between the two.  Beginner, or “budget” hardware was of notably sub-standard quality and packed in less features.  But, thanks largely to the huge explosion of DJ controllers that have hit the market in the past few years… the lines are becoming more and more blurred all the time.  The interest in feature-rich and budget-friendly DJ controllers (and other gear) has started to close the gap between the “cheap plastic toys” and the “real stuff”.

Beyond the Basics

Part of the reason that there is less difference these days between home, prosumer and full-on professional gear is the fact that there’s become little difference in the features.

Some of the basic cornerstones of DJing, such as beatmatching and gain control, have been largely taken over by technology.  Sync, auto gain, and the forgiving nature of digital hardware means that you hardly “need” to know how to do them now.  And DJs expect a lot out of their gear nowadays.  Can you imagine buying an all-in-one controller in 2013 that doesn’t have a built-in audio interface or scratch-able platters?  Of course not… they all do that now.  How about buying a belt-driven turntable to mix on?

So, what do companies do in order to stay afloat?  They add features.  Knobs which make wild things happen with a flick of the wrist (such as the Sound Color FX on the DJM 900 Nexus), contact-less controls which let you mangle the sound by moving your hands around like a crazy person (such as the Hercules DJ Control Air), or customizable LED colors (such as on the Pioneer DDJ-WeGO).  This is due to a well-known and documented phenomena known as “feature creep”… read more about it on the Wikipedia page here.

Sure, some of the extraneous features of modern DJ gear range from unnecessary to plain laughable.  So, what if you wanted to emulate just the simple basics of traditional mixing?  Something like the Gemini Firstmix would do just fine, but tell me that doesn’t seem like an amateur plastic toy.

gemini firstmix

However, any good DJ should be able to completely rock a party with a toy like that.  So where does the line really get drawn?

Today’s So-Called Pro Gear

The strange irony in all of this is that today’s “professional grade” DJ equipment requires you to literally pay thousands of dollars for something that has less features and capability than something you can buy for a few hundred bones.

It really makes you wonder how long Pioneer is going to be able to keep making admittedly nice, but astronomically-priced gear.  I get their desire to (re?)standardize DJ booths and allow people to leave their laptops at home… but when they are asking seven or eight thousand dollars for gear that can do the same thing or less than an average mid-grade controller and laptop, it’s going to become a harder and harder sell.

I’m not saying Pioneer doesn’t make good equipment, they definitely do.  I just wonder how long this business model can sustain itself.  But hey, they’ve been in it longer than I have.

The Bottom Line

If there’s any main point I want to make here, it’s this (I don’t care how cliche it is): don’t judge a book by it’s cover.  The simple fact of the matter is that while technology continues to close gaps (in skill, affordability, accessibility, and feature set)… it doesn’t mean that piss poor DJs are suddenly made into good ones.

Technology is closing the gaps for the more mundane tasks of DJing (beatmatching, gain control, carrying 50 lb. crates, etc.), but the things that make a good DJ have not changed: your skills, your ability to read the crowd, your intuition on knowing when to play the right track at the right time, and your ability to put on an enjoyable performance.  I’m not saying not to buy high-end gear… I say buy what makes you happy, and a piece of cheap plastic that looks like it came from Toys-R-Us does not fit the bill for me personally.

But, that said, the gear is simply a tool to broadcast the tunes.  What you do with it is up to you.