Hello and welcome to round numero tres of my DJ Software Comparison series. Today I will be reviewing one of the biggest software packages available today in the world of digital DJ’ing; Serato DJ.
The very name Serato can elicit strong polarising opinions with the DJ community. For some, Serato is synonymous with digital DJ’ing itself, from its early days of its Digital Vinyl emulation to its current focus on MIDI controllers, and all the positive or negative aspects of digital DJ’ing seem to weigh heavily on its back.
Serato have followed a philosophy of “don’t do everything, but do what you do WELL” and its seemed to have paid off, as Serato and Traktor arguable find themselves at the top of the heap today in the DJ’ing world.
The company started off as Serato Audio Research in Auckland, New Zealand in 1998 and a studio production and performance company. Its first major product was Pitch ‘N Time, a time stretching and pitch shifting plug in for the Pro Tools audio production suite.
They soon found their niche creating their Digital Vinyl emulation software, known as Scratch Live, in 2004 which allowed DJ’s to use specialised vinyl with computer code etched onto its grooves to play digital audio files from a computer on a turntable. It revolutionised the DJ scene and things have changed much since then.
In 2008, they branched off into MIDI controller-based software with ITCH, which was made hand-in-hand with select controllers such as the massive Numark NS7.
Stepping up their game in 2012, Serato created their new flagship Serato DJ software, which effectively combined Scratch Live and ITCH into one comprehensive package. The most recent stable release is Serato DJ 1.5.2. Combining this with their free stripped down version Serato DJ Intro, Serato has got most DJ’s needs covered.
As mentioned before, Serato DJ is not a ‘feature laden’ software package like Virtual DJ (although it is catching up), but it does provide rock solid stability and reliability for DJ’s looking to set up, kick ass, and leave.
But let’s see exactly how Serato DJ does stack up to the compeition?
Plug and Play Functionality
Serato DJ is perhaps best known for being the easiest to set up, the easiest to use, and the easiest software to maintain on the DJ scene without sacrificing fundamental features. This is because Serato works very closely with the hardware manufactures during production to create a product from the bottom up that functions just as good on the hardware front as it does on the software front. This means minimal hiccups during initial setup. It really is as simple as installing the software, plugging in the hardware and playing!
Library & Crate Management
Any DJ software needs to be able to identify and manage your digital audio files, whether they come from your internal hard-drive, external hard-drive or from a supplemental device such as a smartphone. Serato DJ does this better than most other competitors on the market. Serato makes it very easy to create “crates” which you can store your music into and use for helpful management during your shows. You can even create “smart crates” which allow you to search for helpful tags such as genres, BPM, or key words in the song title and create a crate right then and there. Of course crates and smart crates are saved and are available anytime you open the software. Another bonus is if you use iTunes to organise your music into playlists, as many DJ’s do, Serato DJ can read those playlists directly allowing you to use iTunes as your primary music management device.
Serato was one of the last software packages to add effects, or FX, to audio tracks and it was known for several years as having sub-standard FX quality. That has changed dramatically since 2012 since Serato hooked up with iZotope FX to overhaul their effects library. iZotope is most known for creating professional FX plugins for audio production software. iZotope has also increased the effects available to Serato DJ dramatically, with Serato now outnumbering Traktor in FX options. A base pack of FX is now available to all Serato DJ users, with extra FX packs available for US$19 each. Serato allows users to choose between Single FX mode, which allows incredibly detailed control over one effect, or Multi FX Mode, which allows multiple effects to be chained together to create interesting combinations.
Smooth Jogwheel Performance
Serato DJ is the favourite DJ software package for Hip-Hop based DJ’s and DJ’s interested in scratching techniques. This is because Serato has incredibly tight 1:1 mapping of the jogwheels of its supported cogwheels (pssst, Jogwheels are the round spinny wheels on controllers that represent vinyl turntables). Serato integrates Human Interface Design (HID) for jogwheel mapping rather than MIDI. HID is the connection protocol used for keyboards and mice and is much more accurate than MIDI mappings. Technical details aside, jogwheels feel the best with Serato and will entice you to try some baby-scratching or full blown transposing during your shows!
External MIDI Mapping/Remote App for iOS
Serato DJ allows you to easily MIDI map an external controller to add functions that aren’t available on your original controller. This is most used for the Serato sample player, known as the SP-6 player, since no controller to date allows you to use all of the functions of the sample player. I myself have mapped a Novation Launchpad to activate the SP-6 player for Serato DJ with the Novation TWITCH.
Serato has also released a remote app for apple iOS devices such as the iPad, iPhone and iPod Touch devices. This neat little app allows you to trigger hot cues, use the SP-6 sample player, and utilise FX. This is a great little app if you own a beginner controller that does not offer all the bells and whistles that more expensive controllers offer. You can connect through USB for low latency or wirelessly via WIFI. It costs a bit at $20USD for the iPad app and about $5USD for the iPhone/iPod app.
Serato DJ also happens to have an excellent video plug-in available, aptly named Serato Video, that allows its users to incorporate video into their DJ performances. Videos can be manipulated just as audio can be with loops, effects and fade ins/outs to create a truly multi-media-melting experience. For anyone that has seen a good video DJ behind the decks, it can take you to another world. A minor flaw regarding the video plug-in is that it’s US$149 to purchase, so make sure you will use it in your shows or it will go to waste.
and now onto that part that where we address some of the shortcomings of Serato DJ
Software packages such as Traktor allow you to make changes to your MIDI mappings (if you want to change what a particular button activates on your controller, for example). Virtual DJ allows you to change the interface skin and download new mappings or FX. Serato DJ does not allow this level of customisation. Other than allowing what effects can be “favourited” in your list and choosing between the 4 interfaces options available, you cannot change much about the software. This is due to the plug and play nature of the software. It means that your main controller mappings cannot be changed (although Serato has gone on record to say that primary controller MIDI mappings will be available at a later date in the future). So if you want to use the GAIN knob as a filter knob (and your controller does not have a separate filter knob, you are not able to do it with Serato.
Decreased Hardware Compatibility
Since Serato works closely with its hardware developer partners to ensure that Serato works as smoothly as possible, it also means that not all controllers can work with Serato DJ. Popular controllers such the as Traktor Kontrol S4 or the Denon DN-MC6000 are not compatible with Serato DJ due to this reason. However, workarounds have been seen in the past year, with controllers coming out with separate “Serato DJ” versions, such as the Vestax VCI-400DJ or the Denon DJ MC6000 MK2, which were originally not designed to work with Serato DJ software.
This can also work the other way around, as controllers that were originally designed first Serato DJ may encounter problems when mapped to other software such as Traktor or Virtual DJ. This is especially true of the Serato controllers with fully motorised platters, such as the Numark NS7/NS7II, which cannot work with Traktor.
Price + add ons
It is a competitive market out there, and with some countries still in a downturn, price can count for much. Serato DJ is not the cheapest software, but not the most expansive. Keep in mind that Serato DJ is “free” when buying a supported controller but usually the licence cost is incorporated into the cost of the controller itself. At $129USD to upgrade from Serato DJ Intro it is a reasonable cost considering all the features that comes with it but when adding the price of the video plugin ($149 USD) plus the extra FX expansion packs ($19USD each) and the additional Serato Remote app ($5USD-$20USD) it can add up to an expensive package. My advice is to ask yourself what extra add ons will you actually use and which ones sound more like novelties. For each person this will be different, but for the add-ons that sound like novelties they can perhaps wait.
Lack of Key Detect
Serato DJ is now the only (main) DJ software package available that does not include its own key-matching detector. As discussed in earlier posts, Key matching allows the software to determine the key (or main note) of a song and suggest what songs will match well with that song based on similar or identical keys. This is known as harmonic matching and is becoming more poplar in DJ’ing. Fortunately, there are good third-party software packages that can do this for you, most notably “Mixed in Key”.
Now this last one has been brought up by a lot of DJs in the community however I do not seem to encounter this particular problem. Many DJs report that they key lock feature, which allows songs to stay in tune when changing it’s tempo, is reported to be distorted in Serato DJ compared to other software packages. It means that the further you change its pitch the more distorted the song will sound when compared to Traktor or Virtual DJ. I personally believe that you shouldn’t change the pitch of any particular song by +/- 5 BPM unless you want to achieve that chipmunk or Darth Vader quality on purpose. Serato has identified this issue and are reported to be working on a fix.
That completes our look at Serato DJ. My own personal experiences with Serato DJ have been very positive and it is in fact the software package that I use most frequently. I do like the workflow of the interface and the new iZotope FX are highlights for me. Of course, it is also helped by the fact that the controllers I personally use (Novation TWITCH and the Numark N4) seem to function best when used with Serato DJ.
Stay tuned next week as I present the thrilling conclusion to my 4-part series on DJ Software Comparisons. For my final installation, we will be looking into some of the smaller and newer entires into the digital DJ’ing market such as Mixxx, Cross DJ, FLOW DJ, The One, and even Ableton Live.
Until then, like this post, leave a comment, and share it to your friends.
Thanks for stopping by the corner.
– DJ BRUAEL