Digital DJing on a Budget

Digital DJ Equipment

Digital DJing can open up a whole new world of creative possibilities compared to that of ‘traditional’ DJing with a mixer and two record / CD decks, but can be something that’s often associated with a massive financial outlay.

We’re going to look at how you can get a professional digital DJ setup if you don’t have much cash to burn.

What you’ll need

You’re probably going to fall into one of two categories here: a DJ who’s already been using traditional decks and a mixer for a while now and wants to delve into the digital side of things, or someone who’s completely new to DJing who wants to give it a go through software / hardware. This article will concentrate more on those who are already DJs, but still has a bit of advice for those who want to try it out.

Whatever kind of DJ you are, you’re going to need a laptop or desktop computer and I’m assuming that you already own one. If you don’t, you’re going to need one and having to buy a new computer will most definitely push this article out of the bounds of its intended purpose, ie., setting up a decent digital DJing system for as little as possible. However, a computer that’s been built in the last 3 years or so will suffice well enough. Do make sure though that, when you’re buying software, your machine meets at least the minimum specifications. Go for higher if you can.

Also, if you’re going to be DJing out, you’ll need a laptop. Lugging a desktop machine to a club is not a good idea for various reasons. There’s probably no space in the DJ booth for a desktop machine and they’re much more prone to damage in transit. Just trust me on this one!

Software

There’s a ton of software already on the market for digital DJing, some of it good and some of it not so good.

They all have the same basic goal though: to mix 2 (or more) tunes together as seamlessly as possible, either through auto-beatmatching or by the syncing of two tunes manually using tempo controls. Various effects (such as filters and looping tools) can be applied to make this transition smoother or more interesting. The way this is done and the quality of the effects varies slightly from one program to another and each have their benefits depending on your style of DJing.

Popular software includes:

There’s no clear ‘industry standard’ as yet for digital DJing. Unlike the days of analogue DJing, where the Technics 1210s (now sadly out of production) were without doubt the industry standard, there’s a real fight going on between two leading manufacturers for professionally recognised endorsement: Native Instruments (with its Traktor products) and Serato. These seem to be the choice of the professional DJ at the moment, they’ve both been endorsed by, and have been the choice of, professional DJs for many years.





The Serato range is excellent, but will only run with Rane’s dedicated hardware, which is very expensive. The lastest Traktor (version 2) will run without any dedicated hardware but the software alone is still not cheap.

The rest of the software listed above achieves the purpose, but does not usually have as many features or is as powerful, accurate or easy to use as the Traktor or Serato range. Some of it works out as much more expensive too.

Without going into detailed reviews of all the software mentioned, it’s safe to say that, from my experience at least, Native Instruments’ Traktor is the winner here for an ‘all-round’ and feature-rich DJ tool for both the professional and amateur DJ alike. Not only does it offer the most features in terms of effects, looping, etc., you can still get hold of a Traktor set-up relatively cheaply despite the high price tag of the latest version of the software and hardware.

If you’re new to DJing, then it’s well worth giving some of the other demos a shot too. You may be slightly overawed by the range of features in Traktor if you’re new to DJing and something simpler, like Virtual DJ, may be a better choice for you. If you already DJ out though and are familiar with the ideas of sampling, looping and effects, you’re really going to need one of the products from the major players in the industry.

Traktor v2 offers a cleaner interface than Traktor 1, extra effects and a sampler but is pretty expensive. Traktor v1 is still a perfectly good way to get into digital DJing. It still offers a massive range of high quality effects and is much more affordable than its recently released counterpart.

The software alone for Traktor v1 can cost as little as £40. If you want to make use of timecode vinyl on your existing decks or CDJs, you can pick up the hardware you need second-hand pretty cheaply.

Traktor Duo software by Native Instruments

The Traktor Duo software (a slightly cut-down version of the full product, Traktor Pro, with fewer effects and features) at the time of writing can be picked up new for £36.99 (with free delivery) from eBay. If you find it second hand though, just make sure that the seller has either never installed it or has de-registered the software with Native Instruments. You’ll be stuck with a very expensive demo version otherwise!

Kicking myself at having missed Native Instruments’ massive price reductions in December 2010 of Traktor 1 products (which they were selling off in readiness for the release of Traktor 2 in April), I managed to get a second-hand AUDIO 4 DJ soundcard (the thing you need for timecode vinyl) for £150 from eBay. I already had a copy of Traktor Scratch Pro, so didn’t need the software (which didn’t come with this particular item anyway) so managed to get it at a reasonably good price. You can still pick up a second hand Traktor Duo with the software included for around the same price though so it’s well worth exercising a bit of patience here and checking eBay on a daily basis until a bargain crops up.

A free demo for Traktor 2 can also be downloaded from the Native Instruments website. Again, it’s probably worth doing this first if you’re new to digital DJing just to test it out in terms of accessibility and ease of use before you shell out any money.

Hardware

In order to take full advantage of Traktor though, and if you’re not using your existing decks with a timecode vinyl setup, you’re really going to need some kind of hardware MIDI controller. Using keyboard shortcuts, although still quite powerful, is just not the same as getting your hands on a real fader or dial. And it’s much easier to ‘connect’ with what you’re playing (and much more fun too!) if you can manipulate it by means of a physical, analogue, linear movement, rather than a press of a key on your keyboard.

If you already own an iPhone, iTouch or iPad, there’s a relatively inexpensive option if you use an app called TouchOSC. TouchOSC (available for £2.99 on Apple Appstore) allows you to use pre-created templates (or ones you’ve created yourself in TouchOSC Editor) giving you as much control as you need over Traktor’s many parameters. There are plenty of Traktor specific layouts available, although some you have to pay for. All the templates available on this website, however, are completely free. The best thing though, assuming you have the time and patience, is to create your own. This way you can set up your faders, buttons and dials exactly the way you like them and to suit your style of DJing.

TouchOSC Traktor Template - Mashy v1

The only problem here is the fact that TouchOSC communicates with the computer solely through wi-fi. It would be far more reliable to have a dedicated hardware connection from the iDevice to the computer, but until Apple build dedicated third party USB support for their devices (which is highly unlikely), we’re stuck with wi-fi. There are recently developed hardware solutions however, such as the Line 6 MIDI Mobilizer and iConnectMIDI which allow communication directly from the iDevice to the computer. They’re both in their early stages, can be very expensive and at the moment not usable with OSC commands.

Having to use wi-fi doesn’t represent much of a problem in a home / studio setup, but using just an iPad to control your mix somewhere where you have to rely on getting a rock-solid wi-fi connection is fraught with danger. You either have to rely on the club having a wi-fi router or have to connect through your own ad-hoc network directly to your laptop, neither of which are nearly as reliable as connecting by USB. There’s also the question of credibility here. Would you feel comfortable on stage, or indeed taken seriously, if you do an entire mix on a handheld device? People like to see DJs perform and looking like you’re just texting your mate for an hour may well disappoint some of the audience!

The same can be said for iPad DJ apps such as Djay or TAP DJ. These are great little tools and quite inexpensive too (around £10) but are not yet considered a credible professional DJ device. DJay has recently been updated and now handles auto beatmatching (which it does surprisingly well). It also features cuepoints, looping and EQ and a decent mix can still be performed by using it. It’s hard not to see them as more of a toy though at the moment. They’re really fun to use and would make a nice gimmick for a house party, but I’d be very reluctant to use one in a club.

If you want more tactile control of your DJ software and, rather than using a touch screen or if you’re put off by having to rely on wi-fi, then it’s best to opt for a hardware MIDI controller.

There’s been a huge explosion in the market over the last couple of years in DJ hardware, much of it designed specifically around the features of Traktor Scratch Pro and Serato Scratch. Many of these though, such as Native Instruments S4 and the new Pioneer DDJ-T1 controller, although amazing control devices, are hugely expensive (£750 and upwards). There are, however, some nice and relatively inexpensive alternatives which can offer you just as much control and reliability.

The first are the Novation Dicers. These handy units come for around £79 and work well on their own with a laptop, and even better if you’re using decks (see full review of Novation Dicer for more details).

Korg nanoPad MIDI Controller

There’s the Korg nanoPAD (around £40) which features 12 large rubber buttons and a touch sensitive pad for creating drum rolls. They’re excellent for cuepoint juggling or triggering samples but are not very hard-wearing. I’ve boken two of these now, just through what I would consider normal use. There’s a slightly more expensive version out now though which is meant to be more reliable and features extra buttons.

We also have the Akai LPD8. Similar in size to the nanoPAD, this has fewer pads (just 8 large ones), but features a bank of 8 dials.

MIDI Fighter Controller

Available only from the DJ Tech Toosl store is the MIDI Fighter. I’ve yet to try one of these bad boys out, but they look really impressive. They feature a 4×4 grid of arcade buttons, each responsive enough for performing convincing triplet / crab scratch style cuepoint juggling and beatmashing effects. They look incredibly cool too!

The Novation Nocturn (around £70) is a nice little device and very powerful despite its deceptively simple looking interface. It features 8 buttons, 8 dials and a crossfader which can be easily assigned to Traktor’s main features: EQ, volumes, cuepoints, crossfader, etc. You can split the controls over 4 easily accessible banks too and these can even be further subdivided into ‘pages’. This gives you potentially hundreds of controls at your fingertips. They’re not ideal for cuepoint juggling as the buttons are quite small, but for general crossfading between tracks and applying effects, EQ etc. they’re really up to the job. The rather stiff crossfader renders them pretty useless for scratch DJing though, which their only real downpoint.

Moving from the sub-£100 devices and looking at the £100 – £200 price range, we’ve got the Akai MPD 26 controller, the Traktor Kontrol X1 and the Novation Launchpad (all priced at around £150).

Again, the choice here really depends on your style of DJing. If you’re after more buttons, then the Launchpad offers an 8×8 grid of them, with the option to also assign a further 16. These are really good if you want to be able to cuepoint juggle, beatmash and apply fixed effects instantly and at the same time.

The MPD 26, although it has fewer buttons (4×4 grid), these are much larger than on the Launchpad and therefore much more suited to ‘performance’ cuepoint juggling / beatmashing, especially when considering that they’re built to the same high standard as those on the much acclaimed Akai MPC range It also features a a row of 6 sliders, 6 dials and further assignable buttons so that you can control FX parameters and the like.

The X1 was designed specifically with Traktor in mind and offers astounding control of looping functions and FX application. No sliders though with this device: just button and dials but a worthy controller nevertheless.

The only disadvantage of these three products is the omission of a good quality, dedicated crossfader. You can still assign a crossfader to one of the MPD 26’s sliders for example, or to a row of buttons on the Launchpad, but this is hardly ideal.

VCI 100 SE MIDI Controller

Another option, and one I’d heartily recommend as it’s such a good all-round device, is the now relatively aged Vestax VCI-100. I was lucky enough to pick one up second-hand from eBay recently for £150. It was pick-up only and the seller had no star rating, so it looks like most bidders were put off, thus the bargain price.

The VCI-100, ‘out of the box’ is OK. It’s usable and functional, but it’s massively improved if you upgrade it to v1.4 of the firmware and use the mappings provided by DJ Tech Tools. You can can buy the Firmware Upgrade Kit (£$19.99) and 1.4 overlay (£19.99) available from their website to give you much more functionality than the original unit. They’re usually always in limited stock, but if you don’t mind taking your unit apart (and waiting patiently for a few weeks for the kit to arrive if you live outside the U.S.), this seems to represent the best choice for the digital DJ out of the range of controllers discussed. Not only are you increasing the potential resale value of the unit, you’re also opening up a massive amount of new, creative features missing from the original hardware / software. This is the kind of thing it’s capable of when running the 1.4 firmware and custom mapping…

There are still alternatives around if you want the use of jog wheels, such as the Hercules DJ Control (around £80) or the Numark Mixtrack Pro (around £170) or Mixvibes U-Mix (around £85) but none are as hard-wearing, well constructed or well supported by the community as the VCI 100.

In conclusion…

You can pick up software alone for £40 but expect to pay another £40 – £150 for a dedicated hardware controller. DJs with decks already who want to use timecode vinyl, you need to set yourself aside about £150 to upgrade to a digital setup.

There’s no denying a very strong bias in this article to a particular setup: that of NI Traktor and a VCI-100. This isn’t because of any kind of affiliation with these particular manufacturers I’d like to say though.

I’ve been DJing for 14 years now. Most of this time has been with a mixture of an analogue and digital setup in some form or another. In the early days before digital DJing took off, it was using a PC to trigger samples to complement the 1210s and mixer analogue setup. Nowadays it’s a mixture of the same 1210s but with a range of software and hardware. I’ve tried out many different digital setups and the one mentioned is the one that’s worked out best for me, in terms of both price and functionality. You may discover otherwise though.

Article by DJ Maurice Norris for Digital DJ Tools.

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