Walk into any dance club these days and you're more likely to see a laptop in the DJ booth than a dusty record crate. Lured by the advantages of digital audio (hard-drive music libraries, searchable music catalogs) and the appeal of carrying less equipment around, more and more DJs are trading in their turntables for modern digital systems.
Transitioning from analog to digital can be daunting, though. Freedom from your record crate also brings freedom to choose between dozens of different digital DJ solutions. The NS6 DJ controller and mixer from Numark is meant to take the sting out of the digital transition by offering a capable and relatively affordable ($1,200 MSRP, $999 street) replacement for a traditional analog DJ rig.
For DJs who are accustomed to managing a tabletop-size flotilla of analog DJ gear, the idea of stripping it all down to a laptop and a small DJ controller like the Vestax VCI-300 might seem a little too drastic. The NS6 meets you halfway between the extremes, measuring 23.8x13.4x2.5 inches and weighing in at around 14 pounds. You're definitely not going to fit the NS6 into a laptop bag (unlike the VCI-300), but the recessed handles on the sides of the NS6 make it relatively easy to move around.
The NS6's size and weight contribute to a spacious design that begs for abuse. Typically, these USB DJ controllers feel a little fragile and are constructed from lightweight plastic. The NS6, by comparison, is wrapped in metal from head to toe. The oversize, plastic buttons used for the main playback controls are similar to the ones we loved on the Numark NS7, and respond well to aggressive use.
The Numark NS6 offers all the standard features we like to see in a DJ controller, including high-grade audio outputs (gold-plated RCA or balanced XLR), line/mic input, serviceable faders, club-friendly illuminated controls, and full-size knobs that feel just like their analog counterparts. Some unique features, such as the touch strips that control playhead position, and switchable phono inputs on channels 1 and 2, come as a pleasant surprise.
One shouldn't underestimate the importance of a product's look and feel when it comes to the fickle DJ market, but the crucial test of a USB DJ controller is responsiveness. Unlike analog gear, where buttons and faders are intrinsically linked to their function, the features of a USB DJ controller rely on ones and zeros being sent back and forth from your laptop. Fortunately, we had no complaints about performance latency on the Numark NS6. During testing on both a MacBook Pro and a Lenovo ThinkPad (running Windows XP), we experienced no noticeable lag time between the NS6 controls and the bundled Serato Itch software.
We're also happy to report that the NS6 produced minimal audio latency over its integrated 24-bit, four-out, four-in sound card. Audio buffer settings within the Serato Itch software allow a degree of control to compensate for any audio or performance delays you may experience on your computer. The four-channel mixer can also be switched to all analog inputs just in case you feel nostalgic for your turntables and CD players.
The Serato Itch software that comes bundled with the Numark NS6 is more or less the same program used by the Numark NS7 and Vestax VCI-300, but with support for four simultaneous tracks instead of two, and an added effects section. Itch is a competent, though slightly stripped-down version of the popular Serato Scratch Live program, and should appeal to DJs who value stability and intuitive features over bells and whistles. As far as music organization goes, Itch makes it easy to collect all the music files from your computer or external hard drive (MP3, WAV, AAC, and Ogg Vorbis are all supported), sort them using editable ID3 tags, search for songs by name, and file them into virtual crates. Song tempos can be detected automatically by the software, entered directly, or tapped in manually. One little feature that caught our eye is that after a song is over, Itch color-codes the title to prevent you from repeating it later and boring people to tears.
Our favorite feature of the Serato Itch is the audio waveform view, which is colorized to distinguish high-frequency sounds (snare drums) from low-frequency sounds (bass drums), making it easier to visually align two beats so they fall in sync. If more drastic measures are needed to beat-match a song transition, Serato's pitch-shift keys, auto-tempo controls, and key lock should come in handy.
For better or worse, the Serato Itch software uses the Numark NS6 hardware as a glorified copy-protection dongle, leaving the software crippled without the controller attached to your computer. The upshot of this system is that there are no passwords to manage, and you can install the software on as many computers as you like without the hassle of online registration. The downside, of course, is that the software can't be used with just any MIDI controller, and you can't practice your mixes without having the Numark NS6 hardware attached to your computer.
That said, if you're a pro who's already invested in professional DJ software, the NS6 comes premapped for programs beyond Serato Itch (including Traktor and Virtual DJ). Because the NS6 is MIDI-compatible, it can be made to work with just about any DJ (or VJ) software on the market.
The Numark NS6 is one of those rare pieces of DJ gear that you wish could become a standard for every club. The hardware is durable, intuitive, and well-proportioned, and the software is stable and swift. The system doesn't make us swoon quite as much as 2009's motorized Numark NS7, but it's infinitely more practical.