Best DJ Controllers for Modification: Be DJ Frankenstein

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Off-the-shelf DJ controllers have come a long way in the past few years, but they’re still lacking that certain something. The whole digital DJing movement was founded on a DIY approach way before manufacturers started seeing dollar signs in the eyes of a burgeoning market, and there’s nothing quite like that personal touch. Not everyone’s a ‘ground up’ kinda guy though, so what’s the middle ground?

With a combination of a humble product designer’s best ideas and your own interpretations, you can turn an off the shelf controller into something that represents you, modifying the shape, controls,  swapping out parts and creating your very own Frankenstein controller (okay, Frankenstein’s Monster controller, before any pedants chew my ear off!). Some controllers are better suited to the task, though, so let’s take a look at a few of the prime candidates:

BODY HARVEST

Novation Remote SL25 mkII

Pros:

  • A plethora of connections
  • Logical PCB

Cons:

  • Premium price

The SL 25 is a very clever little controller. It’s got a heap of useful connections, it integrates well with software (whether you choose the ‘Automap’ software that Novation developed to tighten up the software/hardware connection or not), and there’s just enough room in there to house some additional components.

Moldover saw the potential in the Remote SL – the mark I version, however – and you can see he did some really cool stuff with it, a Kaoss pad, a Kurzweil ribbon strip and a little bit of creativity. By using the Remote SL chassis to house the Kaoss Pad and ribbon strips’ internals and using internal power/MIDI connections, the Moldover SL 25 is a real Frankenstein controller.

Korg Nanokontrol

 

Pros:

  • Super low price
  • Lots of MIDI connectivity

Cons:

  • Low quality unit

The Korg Nanokontrol may have started the micro, modular control revolution, but perhaps even more interesting is the price point. Fair enough, the actual build quality of the unit is a little dodgy, but housed inside that creaky plastic case is a PCB that features a bundle of connections that, with a little patience and a soldering iron, can act as the brain for your Frankenstein controller at less than half the price of a standalone DIY MIDI board.


My favourite mod so far is this one by Fake Money, who went full throttle and powered through an entire remodelling, just using the PCB as a base. You can make slightly less adventurous mods too – the Nanokontrol is small enough to be used as an appendage for a bigger Frankenstein mod.

M-Audio Oxygen 25

 

Pros:

  • Low cost
  • Good chassis

Cons:

  • Limited extra controls

The coolest thing about the Oxygen 25 is that it’s really well built for something so cheap. It’s not a tank by any means, but it’s got a decent sized keyboard and internally there are separate, ribbon connected boards for the keys, wheels, and knobs. It’s a shame there are only eight knobs, but that section in the middle is a nice space for something interesting to go…

Midi Fighter Classic

 

Pros:

  • Simple connections
  • It’s a Midi Fighter!

Cons:

  • Relatively small number of connections (although a little coding work can fix that)

The Midi Fighter is a great project for a bit of Frankenstein action on account of the spare pins on the side. You can connect up a variety of controls; you can even use a spare controller’s parts to do it! Here’s a pie in the sky idea: squeeze a Midi Fighter inside a mixer and hook up the EQs to the extra ports.

Akai MPK49

 

Pros:

  • Akai’s patented high res pot design
  • Excellent firm keyboard

Cons:

  • Quite expensive – would require commitment to make a great Frankenstein!

The Akai MPK49 is a great controller on its own, although it’s not necessarily perfect for digital DJs. It’s really solidly built, and Akai has a special patented dual brush design on their pots that allows for high resolution signals to be sent out by default – this is something that nobody else has. One of the first things you might want to do is modify the pads, which aren’t great, and the sensor board for them is fairly simple to attach (for instance) arcade buttons to. I haven’t seen an amazing mod for the MPK49 yet, but I’m pretty confident that the combination of the build quality, fairily roomy case (especially if you remove some of those keys!), and modify-able controls would make it an ideal candidate.

ORGAN DONORS

You might not want the whole controller, or at least, not in its original form. Through the wonders of economies of scale, R&D costs getting written off, and sometimes just a product not doing so well, it’s sometimes cheaper to buy a controller than it is to purchase its components at retail. Here are a few tips; let us know if you have any more and we’ll add to the list!

  • The Behringer BCF2000 and BCR2000 are goldmines for harvestable controls; the motorised faders (BCF) and truckload of LED ring furnished rotary encoders (BCR) are difficult if not impossible to buy separately for the price of the unit as a whole!
  • Akai’s MPD series uses (with the exception of the ancient MPD16) the same pads and sensors as the ones of so much revere on the MPC. Whether you go internal, and hook up the MPD via MIDI to your ‘host’ controller, or get even more adventurous and connect the pins to the board of another controller altogether, using MPC pads feels great.
  • Stanton’s SCS3 controllers are built around capacitive controls. Whilst they don’t cost the earth, you’d be hard pressed to get the amount that Stanton have in the SCS3, with a decent case too, and not have to worry about config, set up and the like (something that can be a real pain with this type of controller). An SCS3 is tiny, and even if you’re just sticking one to a controller in Frankenstein prototype mode you’ll be getting stacks of new controls for not much outlay.

 

MAD (SCIENTIST) SKILLS

Depending on the level you want to go in at – and there’s always something you can do, even it it’s just gaffer taping everything together and grinning maniacally – you’ll need a variety of tools to go Frankenstein on your gear. Moldover’s approach on the SL25 was to keep things as simple as possible, and the real work he did was on ergonomics and structural modification. All you really need here is:

  • A ruler
  • Drill
  • Razor blade (Stanley or X-Acto knife)
  • Sand paper (rough and fine grain)
  • A Dremel or other multitool will make all this easier!
  • Super glue
  • Electrical tape

Fake Money took things to the next level. If you want to go down the electronic modifying route you’re going to need the following:

  • Soldering iron
  • Solder
  • Wick
  • Sucker
  • Extra wires (top tip: cut open a CAT5 network cable for TONS of thin wires perfect for these small projects)
  • Ideally, a multimeter for troubleshooting

We’ve done some DIY guides before, check out here and here for more information!

CLOSING WORDS

The possibilities when it comes to Frankenstein controllers are endless. Everything from taking the fader caps and knobs off one controller and swapping them for another to completely rewiring something to look and feel completely different counts, and the point is that you can do just about anything you want if you work it out.

We’ve tried to plant a couple of little seeds of inspiration in this article, but what we really want is to see what crazy mashups you can think of. Let us know the perfect parts of your favourite controllers you’d love to go Frankenstein on in the comments!

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  • CraigCyril

    Mostly DJ controllers
    are support all functions such as musical part, software part, hardware part,
    lightning etc and provide better output and make our job very easier. Thank
    you for this post.
    DJ equipment

  • Djgreg13

    Wow Great post There are also some cool Ideas here in older posts http://www.disc-jockeys.blogspot.com

  • DonkeyMachine

    What about a good old computer keyboard?  Would that work for parts? You can find those anywhere for little or no money. 

  • Jason

    I have a korg nanopad….could I use that as the brain for my custom midi controller or does it HAVE to be a nanokontrol…

  • I prefer to plan out what I need and buy Multi-Capable controllers (it saves on headache time if the devices ever fail) however, if you want touch strip controllers and you have a USB Powered hub, this could be useful for you: http://vmeter.net/

    Special Note: Touch screens, strips etc have no (at least external) moving parts, so it’s really hard to wear it out but they don’t have knobs (to break off) that run in chases. I suggest attaching these to a surface from the underside and making a beveled “finger chase” so you don’t have to look at the slider while moving the control.

    And then there’s the secret release of the new Steinberg CMC Series family: http://www.steinberg.net/en/products/controllers/cmc_series/models.html

  • fakemoney

    Cool seeing my controller here…i didn’t think anybody ever read my blog! Cheers.

    • Chris Cartledge

      My pleasure! I try and keep my ear to the ground 😉

  • Kinskop

    It’s a shame the novation launchpad isn’t listed. it’s maybe the cheapest way to get multicolor LEDs and the is a fantastic programming guide with all: midi, hex and decimal values listed. I just recently managed to make it work like a monome inside traktors sample decks!!!

  • Jack

    Im gonna try and figure out how hard it would be to mod my mixtrack…
    I really want to try and get some arcade buttons fitted. Think its possible

  • TigrEagle

     Warning: The Korg Nanokontrol is a nano piece of crap. I had the thing for a couple months before it stopped working. Not to mention it feels like a cheap toy…I’ve read numerous complaints about the nano products. If you want a cheap mini-controller go with Akai.

  • FuzzyWobble

    I feel my project should of made it somewhere on this list… 

    http://www.instructables.com/id/A-Framework-For-Making-Affordable-Stylish-Modula/ 

    • your instructable inspired my now fiendish obsession with DIY midi. I dont know shit about coding so I am using a Hale UMC!

      • Subarusti

        Well that was a pretty stupid choice considering it does the EXACT same thing as the teensy and costs 3 times as much. Fuzzywobble even wrote the god damn code for you.

        • FuzzyWobble

          That I did. no coding required. 1/4 the price. And you can include rotary encoders. : ]

    • your instructable inspired my now fiendish obsession with DIY midi. I dont know shit about coding so I am using a Hale UMC!

    • Norequest

      Ur controller(s) are out of sight! But I think the author was referring more tho how to hack a controller together by using an old controller for parts. This is much more feasible for us commoners as your awesome rocket ship controllers are beyond our capacity.

    • I love your controllers, but have one question. Would it be possible to hook up a CDJ2000 style screen, and configure it to display the deck information? I really want to limit the “checking facebook” look as much as possible.

  • Tt698810

    Is there enough room to replace to the MPK pads with arcade button? and are there the right connections to do so?

    • synthet1c

      thats actually a really good idea, I bought an mpk mini a while ago cause it was next to nothing… the keys are shocking but buttons, pads with aftertouch and knobs could be cool in a different box.

  • You should make these modifcation tutorials!

  • Interesting. I have an MPK49 that I never use anymore. Maybe I can do something interesting with it…. 

  • Dideebopnyc

    where can I get the blue led cable 

  • nem0nic

    Hey Chris,  The Stanton SCS.3 controllers aren’t built around ribbon controllers.  They’re based on CapSense.  Each “hot” area is defined on the PCB, but in no way separate.  There would be no way to remove a touch zone – even with a Dremel – without destroying the controller.

    • Chris Cartledge

      Cheers nem0nic, fixed! I’d love to see a 3m/3d grafted into a larger controller. Maybe one of these days I’ll have the time/guts/stupidity to try and squeeze one onto a Vestax 05 to replace the upfaders. Or, at least, get the measuring tape out to see if it’s even feasible. Might be time to see if I can pick up a bargain at Cash Converters…! 

    • Chris Cartledge

      Cheers nem0nic, fixed! I’d love to see a 3m/3d grafted into a larger controller. Maybe one of these days I’ll have the time/guts/stupidity to try and squeeze one onto a Vestax 05 to replace the upfaders. Or, at least, get the measuring tape out to see if it’s even feasible. Might be time to see if I can pick up a bargain at Cash Converters…! 

    • Chris Cartledge

      Cheers nem0nic, fixed! I’d love to see a 3m/3d grafted into a larger controller. Maybe one of these days I’ll have the time/guts/stupidity to try and squeeze one onto a Vestax 05 to replace the upfaders. Or, at least, get the measuring tape out to see if it’s even feasible. Might be time to see if I can pick up a bargain at Cash Converters…! 

    • NoRequest

      Don’t want anyone hacking up on of your first of many great brain childs? Cute 😉

      Great work on the new Behringer kit btw!

      • nem0nic

        Sorry, but the SCS.3 isn’t my brainchild.  It was created by a much smarter man than I.  I wasn’t the chef in that kitchen – just an assistant.

  • here is my hacked joystick. Found it in a dumpcontainer…. cutted it up, glued back together and painted ferrari-red. Trough Junxion i now have created a template with 6×8 on/off buttons which i can recall (up/down) with the little buttons on the left side

    • interesting but the before seems more useful! lol i use flight simulation joysticks and script them to midi using glovepie without any physical modding. 

      • I use this joystick in combination with the remote sl, which has the automap  function. In ableton with one buttonpress on the joystick i get to to control my 8 rotary’s on the remote, very easy and fast way of working!

  • Weltraumpapst

    pretty sure. moldover didnt put a kaos pad inside his mod, but a normal midi x/y pad

    • josh@firestorm

      the SL 25 mk1 and mk2 have a x/y pad as standard 

  • Rutger Willems

    Goodarticle!

  • Mob

    Maybe it will sound like a sacrilege, but the vci 100 with the 1.4 firmware is also lendind itself to be a really good franken patient 😀
    lots of buttons, metal pots, lots of leds, two jog wheels assembly, fader and cross fader (en we now you can use a pro x fader inside ), etc… 

  • I really want to mod my MPK49 with arcade buttons, but I’d need to replace the pad panel entirely. I will start playing with stencils and see what I come up with. My existing Midifighter pro, VCI-100 Aracade Edition would supplement the awesome MPK49 Arcade Edition.

    • Chris Cartledge

      Keep me updated! Any job on the MPK49 would undoubtedly be a mammoth undertaking, but I’d love to try one day!

      • I was eyeballing it last night and it appears my spare midifighter face will fit. I need to take it apart and see how the performance controls and LCD butt up against that area. This would be like my third soldering job ever, and my mapping skills aren’t the greatest, but it should be fun.

        If this works out, I also have a MPK61 that I could probably fit a midifighter board in. That would be slick, but I’ll start with babysteps.

    • Chris Cartledge

      Keep me updated! Any job on the MPK49 would undoubtedly be a mammoth undertaking, but I’d love to try one day!

    • Chris Cartledge

      Keep me updated! Any job on the MPK49 would undoubtedly be a mammoth undertaking, but I’d love to try one day!

    • Tdennis1

      I would love to see that! If you guys ever make any mappings for it share it. Such a versatile keyboard would be fun to dj with!