Pioneer DJ DDJ-SB3 review

Pioneer DJ DDJ-SB3 review

Last Updated on by Daniel Lawrence

The Pioneer DDJ-SB3 represents the third controller in the most successful partnership between Serato and Pioneer DJ. The SB3 controller is a more sophisticated evolution of the entry-level SB series. Even though it’s cut down, basic, and rather plasticky, it’s getting more features from more expensive gear, and it continues to be an awesome way to get started as a DJ.

FIRST IMPRESSIONS / SETTING UP

The fuss! What a ruckus! Why would Pioneer DJ make a controller with a button that – heaven forbid – scratches for you? Why would Jazzy Jeff endorse it and lend his scratch patterns to Pioneer DJ? Has DJing come to an end?

I don’t think so. Pioneer DJ DDJ-SB3 is a beginner DJ controller that is simply awesome, and also happens to have a neat little feature that lets you create some simple scratch patterns if you want to. I think it’s pretty cool. But in reality, it’s only a small part of the controller.

Pioneer DJ DDJ-SB3 review: Software

Serato DJ Lite, a cut-down version of the Pro package, powers the DDJ-SB3. At this price point, this is standard for Serato controllers and is adequate for getting started.

Any serious DJ will definitely want Serato DJ Pro at some point, but the DDJ-SB3 with Serato DJ Lite is an excellent pairing – and once you own Serato DJ Pro, I suspect you’ll be looking at other controllers as well.

It is easy to set up any DJ controller that is compatible with Serato DJ software. Getting started with Serato is as easy as going to the website, creating an account, downloading the software, installing it, plugging in, and you’re done. USB power is provided by the unit, so external power isn’t necessary (actually, it’s not an option).

Getting started

ddj controller

A new DJ has a few hurdles to jump through when getting started, so here is a rundown: You’ll need local music, and you can’t use your laptop’s speakers. You’ll need powered speakers, or you can hook up to your home cinema system. The audio lead is not provided, so you will need to find 2 x RCA-to-whatever-input-you-require cables.

It has only the basic connections on the back and is (only) powered by USB.

You should also bring a pair of headphones that are compatible with the DDJ-SB3, which only has a 1/8′′ minijack connector. Last but not least, you’ll need a 1/4″ jack (TS) unbalanced microphone for use – no pro XLR inputs here (and you wouldn’t expect them). In addition to the volume control on the back of the unit, the mic input on the back of the unit bypasses the DDJ-SB3’s controls entirely.

When you have analyzed your music (this allows Serato to find out things like BPM and track waveforms), you can start mixing.

IN USE

When used, the DDJ-SB3 feels light, plasticky, and small. However, the controller is solid, and to all intents and purposes, it performs like a small version of larger controllers such as the Pioneer DJ DDJ-1000.

That’s because its design is totally “grown-up”: Asymmetric decks, sober colors, eight performance pads per side, trim/lo/mid/hi channel controls, individual channel filters. It’s surprisingly feature-rich for an entry-level device.

Jogs, transport, and pitch controls

ddj controller

The jogwheels on any controller are the most important part for me, and these are small, well made (they’re aluminum), feel good, and are responsive and reliable.

They come with the usual vinyl/CDJ behavior modes, and by holding Shift while turning the jogs, you can “scrub” through your loaded tracks quickly. Play/Pause and Cue buttons have been improved over the rubbery ones on the DDJ-SB2, being hard and arranged like those on professional gear.

Although the tempo (pitch) controls are short and thin, they’re responsive down to 0.02%, which makes them more than adequate for accurate manual beatmixing, albeit a bit fiddly in practice. 

There’s a key lock button to fix pitch while adjusting tempo. The tempo range can be toggled between 8%, 16%, and 50%.

Mixer and browser controls

ddj controller

On such a controller, the mixer section must be concise, small, and perform the basic functions. Despite only having two channels, there are four “decks”, as there are switches to switch between decks 1 and 3 on the left, and 2 and 4 on the right. Besides the volume, EQ, and filter controls, you also get master and headphone levels, as well as headphone cue (“PFL”) buttons both for active decks and master – the latter replaces a knob for master/cue mix.

There are two VU meters; the one on the left displays the pre-fader volume for the left-hand deck/s, the one on the right displays the right-hand deck. Master VUs are not available, and I would have liked to see some provision for this.

A single rotary encoder is at the top of the mixer for browsing tracks in your library. Pushing down on it toggles between the folder/playlist tree and the currently selected track. You can arm the left and right decks accordingly via two load buttons; press the opposite Load button twice and the same track loads and plays simultaneously on the other deck (“instant doubles”).

Moving the line faders up while holding down Shift, or doing the same with the crossfader, enables “fader start”, a feature beloved of mobile DJs, but also useful for more creative mixes. As soon as the fader is set to “live”, the track begins playing. You can even specify whether this occurs when Sync is turned on or off from the Utility settings.

Effects

A total of three effects are contained in each of the two effects engines. The effects in Lite cover the essentials but are limited. Unlike budget controllers, they’re post-fader; this hasn’t always been the case.

There is no way to assign the effects engines because they are fixed to decks 1 and 3 (left) and 2 and 4 (right). When Shift is held while pressing an effect button, the effect menu opens and the effects can be cycled through. The intensity of all three effects is controlled simultaneously by a single wet/dry knob per engine.

Luckily, the Fade FX adds a bit of variety to the effects available here, and we’ll discuss those shortly.

Performance pads (including “Jazzy Jeff” mode)

There are many beginner-friendly functions on the performance pads. Those aren’t full color – just off or red.

You can access Hot Cues, FX Fade, Pad Scratch (aka “Jazzy Jeff button”), Sampler, and Transformer (“Trans”). Although the sampler is a stripped-down affair (four slots), the same with the Hot Cues (the other slots in these settings are used for transport controls, including Censor), the remaining three functions are more exciting.

“FX Fade” blends filters, loops/loop rolls, and spinbacks, with a slowly reducing volume for as long as one of the eight pads is held. The idea is to sync up two tracks, and then use the buttons to transition between them. Although the results could be achieved “manually”, the one-button versions are entertaining nonetheless.

The Trans feature applies a transformer, or gate, to the selected track, which means it is switched off and on quickly in time with the beat. It is especially nice on vocals, and there are eight timing variations to play with.

The final button is the “Jazzy Jeff” button, or “Pad Scratch” as it is officially known. Basically, any sound you set Hot Cue 1 to will be automatically scratched when you hold one of the eight performance pads, with patterns provided by Jazzy Jeff himself. Additionally, everything happens (roughly) in time with any other track you have playing.

Although the patterns are simple, they work well and are fun; again, you could just as easily do them using the jog wheel, but Jazzy Jeff himself explains that the point is to introduce beginners to scratching and to show them what to practice.

For a beginner controller, it’s a great feature. Slip mode would have been nice to work with this scratch mode, but I guess you can’t have everything!

CONCLUSION

Surprisingly, Pioneer DJ might prefer not to make this controller at all! Despite the company’s own controller range for its own software, Rekordbox DJ, it is true that the DDJ-SB2 before it sold by the bucketload, so people clearly still love Serato. This controller is all set to be another major success for Pioneer/Serato with Jazzy Jeff’s endorsement.

The DDJ-SB3 actually improves upon its predecessor in more ways than just a few modes: the layout is better, the buttons are better, and it just feels a bit more “grown-up”, but at the same price.

“Add scratch effects without a turntable” screams the instruction manual. DDJ-SB3’s jog wheels allow you to easily scratch, and you can also completely ignore the “auto scratch” function if you’d like. Despite your feelings about it, don’t let it sway your decision too much: These functions are actually a small part of the controller’s feature set, and it is still a fine budget controller aside from all that.