American Audio VMS4 Review
The VMS4 MIDI controller is another entry into the newest rage for digital DJs: 4-channel controllers. The VMS4, however, offers a twist to the usual formula by serving double duty as a 4-channel analogue mixer. At a price of only $499, many DJs have asked: “Am I missing something? That sounds like a great deal.” DJTechTools investigates to find out if the first controller from American Audio is too good to be true.
Reviewed: AMERICAN DJ VMS4
Communication: MIDI over USB (requires power supply) / (Mac and Windows)
Available: Available now
Ships with: Virtual DJ LE (2 Decks) – Upgradable to Pro for $199
Weight: Approx. 20 pounds
Key Feature: Built-in sound card and analog mixer
Great value at $499, you’re going to get a lot of functionality for your money with this controller if you already own Traktor Pro or Scratch Pro. The switchable analog/midi channels enable mixing computer outputs with traditional analogue inputs like CD players or iPods. Touch-sensitive jog wheels and touch strips have some interesting mapping potential for Traktor users. The steel chassis feels and looks more professional than the price suggests.
The VMS4 ships with Virtual DJ LE, so you will need to spend another $200 to get a decent piece of software. The outputs of the mixer in digital and analogue mode are noticeably lower than other mixers and sound cards. At a weight of almost 20 pounds, this is not exactly the most portable controller available on the market. The jog wheels don’t support scratching and pitch bending at the same time unless you use a protective rubber ring around the wheels, which detracts a lot from its curb appeal. The cross fader has a 1/4″ delay in action for both audio and midi, making it impossible to do fast cuts and crabs accurately.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If DJTechTools or another group comes out with a stellar Traktor Pro mapping, this could be a great winter toy for those that can’t quite plop down $999 for the Native Instruments S4. If you want an all-in-one controller/software combo that works really well out of the box, this is not quite it. The Virtual DJ LE software leaves much to be desired and there are no great mappings for Traktor Pro available yet.
This 4-deck controller is no lightweight. Built out of an all-metal chassis, it weighs in at nearly 20 pounds. Thankfully there are four thick rubber bumpers on the corners, which keep it from knocking up the surroundings during transport. As shown in the photo above, the VMS4 is quite a bit longer than a 15″ laptop, taking it outside the easily portable size range, but it is still packable with a specialized bag or road case. A few specific notes on the various controls:
- Line Faders: 45mm and average quality with a less-than-smooth resistance
- Crossfaders: Comparable to most MIDI controllers in this price range
- Jog Wheels: Surprisingly smooth and pleasant to use with the 1200 style rivets, but the lack of pitch bending in scratch mode will annoy some
- Knobs: Rubberized for good grip but the LED marking system is not ideal for all conditions
- Pitch Faders: 60mm and comparable to most MIDI controllers in this price range
- Buttons: These are silicon rubber with a ‘cliquey’ tactile switch that are fairly squishy and not the most enjoyable to press
- Front Panel Controls: Very extensive with full crossfader assignment and mixer options
- Mouse Pad: Like most built-in mouse pads you will probably end up using the pad on your laptop because it just performs much better but the PAD can be used as an X/Y controller when the shift button is held.
GREAT FOR THE MOBILE DJ?
It is no surprise that this unit is going to be a hit with mobile DJs as American Audio’s business appears to be primarily aimed at that market. There are some really good features that will be ideal for that group:
- Balanced XLR outputs
- Full 4-channel analog mixer for blending CDs and vinyl with a computer output
- Dual XLR MIC inputs with 3-band EQ for each MIC
- Appropriate size and professional appearance for the standard wedding gig
I was concerned that the power supply is un-grounded, as some mobile DJs have reported ground problems when running powered speakers straight out of all-in-one controller like the VCI-300.
All of the black rubberized knobs are marked not by a white line but by red LED backlighting. In theory, this is a very cool feature, and should help a lot in dark environments. In standard day/indoor light, however, it is actually worse than the usual white lines. The problem? In 90% of knob positions, only a small dot of red is visible, making the position hard to recognize. There are four knobs marked with standard white lines side-by-side so it’s very clear which method works better. To make things even more awkward, those knobs marked with white are actually endless encoders – the types of knobs you want with no marking!
Fortunately, in dark lighting – the more common scenario – the red LED lines are more fully visible and start to work slightly better than the traditional white marking.
VIRTUAL DJ LE
The controller ships with Virtual DJ software so you can start playing right out of the box (the screen shot above was taken from my 15″ Macbook). The first thing you notice is the 8-bit VMS4 skin. This one-to-one representation of the hardware is not LO-FI in a good way but looks more like a bad GIF from the late 90’s. On visual presentation alone, it’s hard to take the software seriously with graphics this bad (at 13″, full-screen looks better). Purchasing a 4-deck controller that ships with only two decks worth of software may also be a frustration, but you can upgrade to the newer version of Virtual DJ for $200. I am told the full version of Virtual DJ is much better but this VMS4 edition is very limited in its scope. The single most frustrating feature exclusion was a lack of itunes support. You can browse the itunes folders but have no access to Itunes playlists.
The included sampler has loop and one-shot modes. If you want to just trigger a few air horns then they will work OK, but with considerable latency. The loops are supposed to auto sync with playing tracks but even the supplied loops that come with the Virtual DJ software fail to sync up at all with basic electro.
Assuming that most of you will be looking to connect this to Traktor, lets go ahead and see how it performs in that department.
I did some basic mapping inside Traktor to test the controller and used FreshFluke’s 4-deck mapping, which is supplied by American Audio. I found the latter to be barely usable without an overlay and vinyl control, so instead focused on a few of the key points:
- Jog Wheels: High resolution, with a message sent when the top or side of the wheel is touched
- Pitch Faders: High resolution
- Shift Button: Hard wired, this changes the note values and turns the mouse pad into an X/Y controller
- Touch Strips: Standard resolution (0-127), with a single message sent when touched
- Everything else is standard MIDI and worked without issues. One bonus is that all controls, including crossfader assignment and even the MIC controls, are MIDI-assignable.
One of the VMS4’s strong points is their ‘MIDI-Log’ feature. This means that you can switch all 4 channels from either providing MIDI control for internal mixing or route sound out the VMS4 for traditional analogue mixing. This would be most ideal for someone that needs to mix their computer output with a few analogue sources throughout the night.
As an analogue mixer the unit performs reasonably well, although I found it fairly easy to distort the outputs with very crunchy results when the low end was pushed particularly hard. As mentioned earlier, one noticeable shortcoming is that the outputs are quite a bit quieter than the average mixer or sound card (more below).
The crossfader is the one major drawback of using this controller as a traditional mixer. I noticed there is about 1/4″ of travel into the fader before it actually starts to activate. This would be a major problem if you wanted to use the VMS4 as a combo mixer/controller with a DVS system like Scratch Pro. Although not as noticeable when set to a soft crossfader curve, in the hard-cut setting it becomes unusable for fast cuts and transforms. It’s worth noting that this was only apparent in analog mode and not when using the crossfader as a MIDI controller.
There are some reports on the web of analog mixer bleed between channels. I personally did not encounter this issue but it has been a problem for some early adopters.
I A/B’d the VMS4 audio outputs against the popular Audio 4 DJ (which has shown to be one of the stronger DJ sound cards in our roundup). The results were not exactly great. In order to get the levels even I had to boost the VMS4 outputs up by approximately 3 dB (see above photo), which adds a lot of noise to the channel. Once at an even level, the sound did have some thin characteristics. It was slightly lacking in low end and did not have as good of a stereo field as the Audio 4 DJ.
These tests were performed in our labs, which are equipped with the following DJ system.
- Mains: 2 x Mackie SRM-450 + 1 x 18″ QSC sub
- Monitors: 2 x Genelecs
Don’t buy this unit, or almost any controller for that matter, if you expect to do any serious scratching. The accuracy of the MIDI just does not support it. I had really poor results in attempting to scratch in a track with Virtual DJ and average results with Traktor Pro (comparable to the VCI-100)
The value-packed $499 controller from American Audio surprised us by performing above expectations. Although not exactly Rane or Vestax quality, everything is solidly built and looks like it may stand the test of time. If you already own Traktor Pro and can’t rationalize the higher-priced Kontrol S4 or VCI-400, or simply can’t wait to get your hands on a reasonably priced 4-deck controller, the VMS4 is a good value with 4 channels of controls and a built-in sound card. I can’t see many people taking it to the club because of its weight and sound card shortcomings, but for home use and casual DJing, it will be sufficient. The included software won’t take you very far, so take into consideration the extra $200 to be spent on software when doing price comparisons.
DJ TECHTOOLS MAPPING
If there are enough interested parties, we may create a mapping/overlay combo for Traktor Pro and the VMS4. Sign up bellow to express your interest and we will e-mail you more info if a DJ TechTools VMS4 mapping for Traktor Pro is created!