* Prices may differ from that shown
DJ software is a boon to the recreational or working DJ because the programs can hold a vanload of records on a laptop, making it considerably easier to work parties, shows, and weddings. Even better, DJ software has evolved to the point that it's on a par with physical setups, aside from obvious omissions such as the ability to scratch vinyl with your hand. There's just one problem: it's hard to mix and beat-match using a mouse and keyboard. The Hercules DJ Console external USB audio interface aims to solve that problem.
Measuring about 9 by 8 by 2.5 inches, the Hercules DJ Console is likely smaller than your laptop, although its size isn't much of a constraint; Hercules managed to fit 28 sliders, buttons, and dials onto the device without too much cramming. For mixing, you get a volume fader for each track and a smooth cross-fader to move between them, which slides about as lightly and smoothly as the cross-faders on pro mixers. A joystick in the center controls effects and acts as a mouse substitute for picking songs onscreen. We really appreciated the two Autobeat buttons; press one of them, and the song on that deck will fade in, automatically beat-matched (sweet). Pitch-bend buttons (0.1bpm per click), EQ, and fast-forward/rewind round out the equation.
On the front of the Hercules DJ Console, you'll find a dual RCA input for your backup CD player; a 1/4-inch stereo input for your microphone, with volume knob; and a headphone jack, also with volume knob. The headphone allows you to preview the next track so that you can use this thing without a mixer. Click the microphone knob in, and your music gets quieter so that people can hear you talking--a great feature for wedding DJs looking to amp up the crowd.
Each track also has bass, midrange, and treble EQ knobs that work fine, but we'd also like to see dropout buttons that remove the frequency range entirely so that you can cut the bass for four beats, then drop it back in. As things stand, this requires a superfast rotation to the left and back again.
A number of inputs and outputs line the back of the device, allowing the DJ Console to double as a top-notch USB audio device for listening to music at home. You'll find six RCA output plugs (for stereo or 5.1 surround sound), three digital coaxial outputs (also 2- or 6-channel), a digital optical TosLink input and output, a five-pin MIDI input and output, and the USB port. One jack you won't find on the DJ Console is a power input; the device gets its juice from your USB port, so connecting through a hub is probably not a good idea.
Finally, for carrying the DJ Console around, Hercules includes a plate that fastens to the top of the device to protect the controls, as well as a shoulder strap. That, your laptop, and a USB cord is all you need--talk about a compact setup. Just make sure you have a generous selection of digital audio files with which to use your portable system; the software that comes with the Hercules DJ console is compatible with MP3 (Virtual DJ includes its own MP3 decoder license), VDJ (Virtual DJ sample format), WAV, CDA, WMA, ASF, and OGG, as well as MPEG-4, M4A, and AAC, if QuickTime is installed.
Plug the device in, and all the buttons on the device light up in sequence--much more impressive to onlookers than merely opening your laptop. We tested out the Hercules DJ Console for quite a while and found that though it's great for simple mixing, the clickable navigation knob in the center of the device just doesn't work reliably for picking songs. There's nothing worse for a DJ than panicking as you try to load up the next track with a dodgy joystick; we recommend using the mouse for song selection and the DJ Console for everything else.
On the other hand, the joystick works well for controlling effects such as brake; flanger; and 1-, 2-, 4-, 8-, 16-beat overloop, although this varies based on which DJ software you're using. As for the scratch pads, they don't produce a very vinyl-like scratch sound, but they're incredible for beat-matching. Since the included software displays each track's beat as a series of blips across the top of the screen, you can use the scratch pads to nudge the tracks so that the beats line up visually, complementing (or standing in for) your ability to beat-match by ear.
The Hercules DJ Console is available in separate PC and Mac versions. We're not sure why, since the only difference is the software, but make sure you order the right one, should you take the plunge into the DJ world with this decent yet not pro-level USB DJ device.