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What is DJ Software? - DJing Software Buying Guide

DJ Software Topics


Why use digital DJ software?

DJ’ing has always been popular but for most of its history, it has involved carting round a large bag of vinyl records or latterly, CDs. And while this is still possible and popular in some circles, the advent of digital music files and DJ software has made things much easier. The increasing power of laptops and continuously evolving capabilities of software applications has meant that on a relatively small budget, anyone can now perform the kinds of live shows that would once have required a significant investment in physical media, not to mention a large record bag.

These days, a decent laptop and DJ audio interface are all you need to be a digital DJ, and if you’re after something a bit more involved, Dj control surface devices that can give you more hands-on control and free you up from the mouse are also commonplace. There are even timecoded scratch systems that let you work with your digital music files using a more conventional turntable or two. As well as the obvious space saving benefits of digital systems, there’s also iTunes on your computer, so if you get a request for a song during a set you can just buy it instantly provided you are on a wireless network. So the days of disappointing the crowd because you don’t have a certain song are long gone.


What to look for in DJ software

Any commercial DJ software will have a pretty advanced feature set, so it’s likely to do the kind of stuff you will need to perform. There are a few crucial things to look out for. Beat analysis is more or less essential, and the software should be able to quickly scan tracks to determine their BPM. It’s generally advised to do this before you get to a show, even though it can also be done on the fly as you perform. Tagging and organising tracks properly will save you getting lost in the middle of a set and avoid glitches that can be potentially troublesome.

Playlists are a key ingredient of DJ’ing as well, and a DJ app should let you create custom playlists as well as sorting by tags like BPM, label, release date, remixer name and other categories that are important to DJs. Most will read your iTunes library playlist as well as being able to use smart playlists and providing instant search functions. In terms of performance, the ability to create beat grids and store preset cue points will help you to set up and tweak your set before you get to a venue. Cueing up tracks at the right point is vital not only for blending tracks together seamlessly but also sync’ing them together to overlay beats and loops on top of each other. At least two software decks are needed for you to be able to crossfade between the two, and higher end applications allow up to four decks for really advanced mixing and layering, or for dropping in loops and one shot samples as well as playing tracks.

Effects are important for digital DJs and let you add more of a live performance element rather than simply spinning tracks. Applying filtering, stutter or delay during playback can really make things sound more interesting. Effects generally hook into hardware controllers too, so you get to vary them in realtime which makes it feel much more like you’re “playing” your system.

Most DJ apps are MIDI controllable and at its simplest, this means that you can create MIDI maps to start and stop decks, load tracks and tweak effects from an external device, usually connected over USB. Companies like Native Instruments make their own hardware controllers that tie into the software at a more fundamental level, providing deep levels of control. They also make their own dedicated audio interfaces with connections tailored specially to the needs of DJs. There are dedicated controllers for Ableton Live as well. It’s really useful to be able to go online and download new music and while store integration isn’t quite as prevalent in DJ software as it used to be, you will be able to do it through a browser or iTunes and then access the files in your software.

DJ apps are able to read not only from your hard drive but also from connected or even networked drives, and also read any iPods connected to your PC or Mac so if someone requests a track that you don’t have but that they have on their iPod, you may well be able to connect the device and incorporate the track into your set. Other advanced features include a facility to record your set directly from the app, and to broadcast a live web stream of your mix as it is performed, something which Traktor is able to do.


DJ software system requirements

A decent laptop with at least a dual core processor (this is more or less any serious laptop these days) is a must, and 2GB or more of RAM are the minimum you should be looking at. Remember that DJ apps don’t just play back your music, they also analyse it and can add multiple realtime effects. If you are incorporating scratching systems you will also need to be operating with little or no latency, so a faster laptop will serve you well. On the whole it’s not as draining on your CPU as running a DAW with lots of plug-ins, so you don’t necessarily need a top-of-the-range machine just to be able to perform. The vast majority of audio interfaces for DJ’ing now work over a USB2 connection, but your laptop will almost certainly have one of these already.


Bedroom DJ or Pro DJ

At its simplest, digital DJ’ing is as basic as playing one track directly after another, perhaps blending the two together with a crossfade. A simple DJ audio interface will provide you with stereo outputs and headphones for cueing. Most people however will want to get a little more hands-on than this, getting creative with looping, layering and effects. A more complex system might involve up to four decks, a hardware control surface and maybe a scratch system for a really authentic scratching experience. More advanced DJs will need an audio interface with multiple outputs to send to different destinations. Perhaps to the front of house system, a mixing desk and to your own foldback system. They may also need RCA phono inputs for connecting real turntables, a microphone input for voice or other input and even a S/PDIF port for digital input or output. Software like NI’s Traktor has Sample Decks to let you drop in or record live loops on top of a performance.


Native Instruments Traktor DJ Software

Base system - Native Instruments Traktor Duo 2 has two decks and also features Sample Decks, which can be used to load pre-recorded or live loops and overlay these onto your performance. You get six DJ effects which sync to your track tempo, making adding delays a breeze, and an audio recorder to capture your live shows. It works with any audio interface.

Simple scratch system - Native Instruments Traktor Scratch Duo 2 features the DUO 2 software but also the Traktor Audio 6 audio interface, with an excellent sound and DJ-centric ins and outs for ultimate flexibility. As well as this you get two timecoded vinyl records and CDs which mean you can spin your MP3s as if they were playing directly from physical media. Users from a vinyl background love the super-precise 2kHz control signal and the feel of the 120g timecode vinyl.

Four deck system - Traktor Scratch Pro 2 gives you a digital vinyl system up to four decks for playback, each assignable to be either a Track Deck, a Sample Deck for loading of loops, or a live input deck, so that a live vocal for example can be routed in and played through Traktor’s effects. In fact The new Loop Recorder can record loops from mixer channels, master out or audio interface inputs, and there are over 30 included effects which can be loaded into multiple slots in the software. There’s support for NI’s dedicated controllers like the Traktor Kontrol X1 and you get all the great Traktor features like advanced beat detection and the new TruWave system which is able to display tracks using colours which show different elements like hi hats, kicks and snares in different light intensities, so cueing is even easier. Native Instruments Traktor Kontrol S4 and Traktor Kontrol S2 are the latest range of dedicated DJ controllers and also include Traktor software. With the Traktor Kontrol S4 Scratch Upgrade Kit, you can control pitch, scratching and transport functions of TRAKTOR using analog turntables and CDJs, as it includes the DVS plug-in.


Rane Serato Scratch Live DJ Software

The bacic system - Rane’s Serato system is much-loved amongst those who like to get hands-on with their tunes. The Serato SL2 Scratch Live System for example gives you the SL2 USB audio interface, the Serato Scratch Live DJ software, two Control Time Coded Vinyl & CD's and four stereo RCA cables to connect everything up to. It also has a microphone input. The larger Serato SL3 Scratch Live System on the other hand adds Auxiliary ouputs that allow DJs and electronic musicians to add to their mixes with the Scratch Live SP-6 Sample Player. The Aux inputs provide a live input feed for creative sampling or recording your set and you are still of course able to scratch and spin with two standard vinyl or CD turntables.

The full monty - Serato SL4 Scratch Live System has a five channel, 24-bit audio interface with two USB2 ports for easy DJ changeover mid-set and back-to-back performances. With this system you can perform with any mixer you like thanks to four switchable phono/line inputs allowing for simultaneous control of up to four decks with one or two computers, and a combination of turntable or CD control. An Aux input and output add the flexibility to record sets externally and create more output options for the SP-6 Sample Player and The Bridge. Amazingly this system supports up to 96kHz sample rates and has a ten in, ten out audio interface for the ultimate in sound quality and flexibility.


Ableton Live

A little different from the others, Ableton Live 8 is almost like a cross between DJ software and a DAW. It supports full MIDI and audio recording, editing and sequencing but also has a very loop-based approach to DJ’ing. You can fire off loops, samples and sequences as well as whole tracks from inside the software and it can also be connected to a dedicated controller units, such as the AKAI APC40 and Novation Launchpad to get a truly live performance out of it.