Free At Last: The Birth of the Stand-Alone DJ System

From the very first time I dragged my old turntables, mixer and record crates out to a gig back in the ‘70s, it has long been my dream, and the dream of many working DJs, to have a rig that did it all.  When Citronic introduced its portable all-in-one mixer/turntable system, the Stateline III Kansas back in the ‘70s, we thought we’d achieved the pinnacle of compactness and portability!  Later, amplified versions came along, eliminating the need to carry an amplifier. Little did we know it then, but we were a very long way away from our ultimate DJ destination!  The main reason?  Media!

In the ‘70s, the main music media were vinyl records and cassette tapes.  Some DJs even used reel-to-reel decks for some of their music.  As we headed into the ‘80s and the advent of the compact disc, most didn’t replace these formats, but simply added another.  At one point, I had two turntables, two cassette decks, a dual CD player, two Sony Mini-disc decks and a Roland drum machine! Naturally this required a mixer with a stunning array of inputs, and this rig was far from convenient!  This was simply the trend.

As the ‘80s drew to a close, most DJs had made the transition to CD, and the stand-alone system was a hot topic once again. Numark introduced the CD-Mix One, which combined both mixer and CD player, and soon others joined the party. Powered units never really caught on, though, due to the amplifiers being moved into the speaker cabinets with the emergence of the active (powered) speaker, still popular today.  A DJ could now bring a fairly impressive sound system to a party in a mini-van or hatchback (the predecessor to the SUV).  Yet the one thing that always made these options less than ideal was, once again, the media.  CDs held more music.  DJs carried more music.  CD cases went from small books to big cases.  And they were heavy.

Then came the MP3.  At first, they sounded pretty bad.  After all, hard drive space in the early ‘90s was tight and expensive, and the MP3 format is what is known as a “lossy” format, meaning that bits are actually tossed away, adding distortion as one compresses the music. The higher the compression, the worse they sound.  Over time, compressors got better, hard drive space got cheaper, and encoding to higher bit rates reached a reasonable (mostly inaudible) compromise.  And the DJ industry split: one side chose to use laptops as their primary DJ platform, while others chose the media controller. The media controller was, at its dark, electronic heart, a computer, too, but it was dedicated to one purpose: playing music.  Numark’s D2 (D-squared) Director, American Audio’s Media Operator and the Gemini-imported Cortex were able to play music directly from flash drives, external drives and (sometimes) SD cards.  Being newer technology, the first units were often glitchy, bringing their own sets of problems.  Despite improvements and innovation, buzz went out over the ‘net, and like the Betamax/VHS battle in the ‘80s, DJs made their collective choice.  Today we’re living in the age of the laptop DJ.

Thankfully, controllers have become the norm, making the integration of the laptop to the sound system much easier than in the past, and giving DJs new tools to take their mix to new heights. The media is still carried either on internal or external drives, and there’s a feeling of sameness, now, as one looks over the various systems in use by DJs across the country.  Never before have DJs been able to do so much, with so much music, with as little gear!  Has DJ Nirvana finally been achieved?

As I see it (not to mention many DJs, sound techs and engineers), the main weak point of all these new systems is the laptop itself.  We love our computers!  That is, until they don’t love us.  They crash. They give us grief over connectivity, “blockchain” errors, passwords, OS updates, or even – gasp! – an outright “blue screen of death.”  (And never in rehearsal!)  In short, they get in the way.  While compact, they often need to be carried separately, outside the DJ console, making them prone to theft or damage.

Denon has now stepped up the game with what could possibly be the opening round in the next phase of DJ system evolution: the all-in-one, truly stand-alone system.  They call in the Prime 4.

Denon has long been a player in every phase of the evolution of DJ systems and makes some of the most sought-after controllers on the market today, and at first glance, the Prime 4 looks no different. Until you find out that you won’t need your laptop anymore, that is!  Instead, the unit has its own touch screen, multiple USB ports and an internal SATA drive bay.  This finally allows a DJ to load all of their music into the unit and walk into a gig with a single box that does it all!  Like Serato, Virtual DJ and other software-based systems, it offers four deck capability made possible by its own proprietary software.  The control surfaces have all of the familiar effects, large jog wheels and inputs/outputs of their best standard controllers.  The mixer section includes two completely separate mic channels – no having to piggyback a mic onto a music input!  One box with everything on-board.  Has the ultimate dream finally been realized?

To that I say, ‘we shall see.’  I’ve ordered one and will most certainly review it here.  Off the top of my head, the only criticism I have initially is that there are two things that can make the “one box” Utopia less than perfect: no built-in wireless mic receiver and, if you want to use an actual keyboard instead of the touch screen, you’ll have to lug that along separately.  That said, this unit is a first of its kind, and there’s no reason to think that this type of evolution is ever going to stop.  In the meantime, the Denon Prime 4 appears to be the state-of-the-art DJ system of 2019.

 

Until next time, safe spinnin’!

Stu Chisholm
Stu Chisholm of Stu & His Crew Professional Disc Jockey Service in Michigan has worked in several areas of the DJ Universe. He’s been a radio, mobile, club and roller skating rink DJ in the Detroit area since 1979, and done commercial voice-over work, as well. Stu has been a keynote and featured speaker at DJ trade shows in the U.S., Mexico, and Canada. He is the author of the book, “The Complete Disc Jockey” and is a regular columnist with Mobile Beat Magazine. To contact him, email DJStuCrew@gmail.com. You can grab Stu’s book at TheCompleteDiscJockey.com.

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