How to dj with just a laptop
Can I DJ with a laptop?
There’s some incredible DJ hardware around these days, most of which plugs in to a laptop as its source of music and control.
So this begs the question “Can I DJ with just a laptop?”
The short answer is YES you can! But there’s plenty of pros and cons to doing this. So I’m going to investigate just what is and isn’t possible when DJing with only a computer.
I’ll look at what your other options are and give you advice on how to DJ with a laptop.
Nearly all modern DJ mixers and controllers these days require a laptop for their source of music and master control. They are essentially slaves to your laptop. Without the computer they wouldn’t function.
Your laptop is where the tracks are stored (or accessed if you’re using an external drive) and its where your DJing software resides, able to talk to multiple hardware devices to make DJing easier.
So with a simple mouse or even a few keyboard shortcuts you should be able to DJ with just a laptop right?
Well Yes and no… Lets look at why.
Your DJ software will have (nearly) all the virtual buttons and controls you would find on a DJ hardware, so you can play tracks, sync beats, apply effects and browse for other music. Perfect right!?
Laptops don’t have the hardware built in to handle multiple audio sources, they also don’t have the necessary screen space to show all the dials, faders and buttons you’ll want to play with during your DJ set
So you can see its not as easy as just loading your DJ software and hitting play. There’s plenty here to dissect. Lets start of by looking at the DJ software for laptops.
There’s an ever growing range of choices when it comes to DJ software. Each with their own approach to making your DJ life easier and giving you creative tools. Some are designed more for standalone use (which might be perfect for you) while others are designed to connect to hardware and enhance the DJ experience. They all have one thing in common.
You can DJ with just a laptop on ALL of them!
Yes its true whatever software you choose to use they can all handle DJing with only a computer, no hardware needed to get started.
Let’s look at a few of the best known DJ software applications.
Native Instruments Traktor Pro
When it comes to industry standards, Traktor is arguably at the top of the list. Its been around for over 10 years now and just gets better with each release, in fact Traktor are pioneering some impressive DJ-ing technologies like no other.
Traktor has possibly the best sample looping features and can handle pretty much any situation you can throw at it. 4 deck mixing, no problem, mixing live audio with digital formats, easy peasy. And with Native Instrument’s range of DJ hardware there’s plenty of room to expand your DJ setup when budget allows. Definitely one to consider. You can buy Traktor Pro 3 here.
Traktor’s biggest rival has to be Serato DJ which many DJs swear by. Part of the reason is that Serato was one of first DJ applications to hit the market over a decade ago when vinyl and CD timecode records were just starting.
I’d say Serato has lost the edge on Traktor in terms of popularity but its still a very professional piece of software that is well supported by many DJ hardware manufacturers. It has quite a cult following too especially in the scratch mixing community.
Pioneer DJ rekordbox DJ
This app has morphed over the years from a simple tool for prepping music for Pioneer’s CDJ and XDJ hardware, to now a fully fledged DJ software solution. its got the standard 4 deck capabilities with sample loopers and effects you can apply to each deck or to the master mix.
Rekordbox DJ only used to work with Pioneer hardware but recently this changed allowing all sorts of awesome DJ hardware to connect to to it, making this a contender for your ultimate DJ setup.
If you’re on a tight budget then Mixxx might be just right for you. This app is entirely free and available on Windows, Mac and even Linux. While the other applications are feature rich with a price tag to match, Mixxx is open source, meaning if you’re a whizz with computer code you could modify Mixxx’s core code to do just what you want. Taking DJing with only a laptop to a new level!
Even though its free it has plenty of pro features like BPM detection, auto-syncing (You should really learn to beat match though!) and for those who may need it there’s even an “auto DJ” function. It also supports plenty of DJ controller hardware and time coded vinyl and CDs sources. Not bad for free!
Atomix VirtualDJ Pro
On the other end of the price scale we have Virtual DJ Pro. For the princely sum of $299 you get plenty of pro features that take this app well beyond any of the others. So if you’re looking for a truly customisable and scalable experience this might be for you. Why have 4 decks when you could have up to 99!
Yes that’s right, for some reason Virtual DJ lets you have 99 decks, all playing at once! It can also handle a very wide range of controllers which maybe the other apps cannot, mostly because they’re made by hardware manufacturers (or free in the case of Mixxx).
There’s plenty of other DJ apps too for various devices but these are definitely the best out there right now if you want to DJ with just a laptop.
But why would you want to use just a laptop when there’s so much cool hardware out there?
I’m not trying to force you to buy DJ hardware if you really want to DJ with only your laptop but its worth considering why this hardware exists at all.
Because it’ll help you understand the challenges of DJing with just a computer.
So lets go back to the old school!
Once upon a time all you needed was a pair of turntables and a mixer! DJing was very much a hands on, tactile experience where you controlled the tempo of records with your fingers. This experience has always been a big part of DJing and while software can host a huge selection of virtual buttons and faders its not quite the “hands on” experience DJs were used to.
So in this digital age it makes sense to build hardware that connects to a computer and offers that tactile experience.
DJ hardware also allows for lightning fast changes and creativity, with all the controls right there in front of you. There’s no need to move a mouse over to a virtual button and click on it. You can just reach out and tap it!
So its this physical experience that mixing with a laptop cannot replicate, while there’s plenty of keyboard shortcuts its all too easy to hit the wrong key.
Having said that there are some reasons why you wouldn’t want to use DJ equipment
- If you’re just starting out its an added expense. You could be on a tight budget!
- A whole new set of buttons and faders can be daunted for beginners
- More tech means more points of failure
- More to carry around, an important factor if you’re a mobile DJ
Whatever your reason for avoiding DJ equipment there is one piece of hardware you can’t avoid if you want to DJ a professional set.
Wait… I thought I could DJ with just my laptop? Well you can but there’s one major flaw.
Laptops have only one audio output…
But you want to preview tracks while one is playing to your audience!
So how can you fix this? Well thankfully its very easy.
USB audio adapters
You can extend the power of your laptop quite easily with a relatively inexpensive USB audio adapter or sound card. There’s plenty to choose from although some are obviously better than others. They are as simple as plugging in, setting up in your chose DJ software and away you go.
You can then listen to a deck with headphones plugged in to a your laptop’s built-in output while the USB audio device handles the master channel sending audio out to your sound system.
Which USB audio adapters are best for DJ-ing?
A quick search on Amazon and you’ll find a lot of USB audio adapters available. While some seem to be very cheap the old saying “you get what you pay for” is certainly true here. Pick one that has a robust build quality as its likely to get bashed around. Cheap sound devices have a tendency to crash when overloaded with data too so keep that in mind.
I really like the Focusrite Scarlett Solo 3rd Gen USB Audio Interface which features some great controls and is low latency high quality audio which is extremely important for DJing.
Another option on a tighter budget is the UGREEN USB External Sound Adapter which has phono / RCA outputs which is great for plugging directly in to a sound system.
Or if you have a bit more budget I’d take a look at the PreSonus Studio 24c 2×2 Audio Interface which has a few more input and output options. It also super high quality audio which is a definite bonus. Most cheap USB audio devices are only 16 bit so you’ll get better sound quality for something more professional. I would go for this one and use it as my primary audio output if you want to send the audio signal to a sound system or club setup.
Use the USB device for master audio
If your USB audio adapter of choice is of a decent quality it’ll most likely produce better analog audio than the sound card built in to your computer. So I highly recommend you make the USB adapter the master audio output that connects to your sound system. You can sacrifice a bit of audio quality on your headphones but you want the best quality signal going to your adoring audience!
So you’ve got your laptop and hopefully a USB audio adapter. So how exactly can you make the most of DJ-ing with no extra hardware?
Here’s some handy tips and tricks for you!
Keep your workload light
Aside from a few choice keyboard shortcuts you’ll probably be using your trackpad or mouse to navigate the DJ software you’ve chosen. This means moving your mouse pointer and clicking on a virtual button, dial or fader. This also usually involves another step where you drag the fader up or down the screen depending on the action you’re trying to take.
Because of this you need to be super accurate with what you’re doing, it takes more time to do a single action that it would to just reach out and move a fader with your fingers.
So I highly recommend you don’t over-complicate your set with lots of loops, effects, crossfader controls and other actions that need to be carried out quickly. Chances are you’ll mess up at some point and it’ll only sound bad during your set.
DJs rocked people’s world long before all these extra effects, loops and tricks were available so keep it simple, beat match your tunes and fade smoothly, maybe using the low, mid and high filters to enhance your set. Your crowd will love it and your workload will decrease.
On trackpads use one hand to hold a click, the other hand to drag a fader or dial
Its much easier to be accurate when you’re using more hands. You can use your left hand to hold a click while you use your right hand to slide a fader up or down.
This obviously only works if your laptop can handle gestures on the trackpad. Macbooks can handle this and have done for years now.
The latest windows laptops do too but not all so look out for this. It definitely makes your life easier.
Hide all controls you don’t use
If you’re keeping your workload simple by sacrificing the use of effects, loops and other buttons there’s really no need to have them on your screen! Most DJ software will let you customise your view, so you can hide the effects controls, remove the 2 decks for loops, hide extra filters and buttons that could easily be pressed by accident!
This will improve your accuracy when controlling everything with a mouse or trackpad.
Put your DJ playlist in order before you start
You can further reduce your workload by having your playlist in perfect order and ready to go. I know some DJs who like to pick and choose from the virtual record box as they play their set, but you’re looking to keep things simple!
So just pick your order and then load each track as you need it. This also means you can reduce the browse window for the playlist to just seeing maybe 3 or 4 tracks. This will reduce clicks on the wrong tracks and save time.
Reduce your display resolution to make controls bigger
Another easy way to make clicking on the right control easier is to reduce your display resolution to something low like 800×600. You can change this in the system preferences of your computer’s operating system. This only really works well if you’ve already removed the controls you don’t use (as I mentioned earlier). Then you can play round the with the screen resolution to make the controls you do need nice and big! As long as you can fit them all on the screen it will really help you be more accurate and more refined.
The number 1 reason for DJing with just a laptop is cost. No extra hardware means you can DJ on a tight budget!
But there are hardware options you might want to consider. Ones that are actually very powerful if you have some time to set them up right.
Here’s some I think you should seriously consider
A USB Midi controller
All the top DJ software options can handle the “Midi” format which basically means you can attach any hardware that has Midi output and then “map” buttons and dials on the hardware to buttons and dials in your software.
So with a very cheap piece of Midi hardware you can actually have some physical buttons to press! Very useful for playing, cue-ing, jumping to cue points, changing effects dials, faders, even filter kill switches if you like. I’ve done this to get super creative with my complex DJ hardware setup but you could easily just have a midi controller to start off with.
You’ll need take some time to map these to your DJ software. You can also download map files for Traktor and Serato that will assign certain controls to these buttons. My preference is to build your own map so you know exactly what every button, dial and fader does. If you want to download map files check out this Midi map file for Traktor and the LPD 8 rom DJ Tech Tools.
The cool thing is you don’t have to limit yourself to one midi controller, you could have many! So you can always add more to your setup as your budget allows.
There is one caveat…
These physical buttons and dials are definitely better than using just your laptop but they are designed as available tools rather than an intuitive interface. Real DJ hardware has dedicated buttons in obvious places, well labelled and often colour coded with different LEDs. These midi controllers don’t have any of that, so I suggest you grab the sticky tape and make some little labels for each control!
DJ hardware to buy first
Once you’ve got more budget I recommend you look at something more serious, especially for mixing. I’ve written an article on choosing the best DJ mixer for you based on your budget, skill, working environment and many other factors.
Something simple but very professional like the pretty cheap Traktor Kontrol Z1 is a great place to start with its built in sound card and very good build quality. Its also small and easily portable. The price is pretty good too and has the kind of tactile controls that a laptop just can’t give you.
You will find professionally made DJ software for mobile devices these days like the Apple iPad and iPhone but I can’t stress enough
Do not use these devices to DJ!
There’s some very good reasons why you should not do this. Here’s a handful for you
- Touch screens are not accurate enough for a refined DJ experience
- The displays don’t have enough room for all the buttons so there’s lots of menus and switching between button layouts, very bad when you’re in the middle of an important mix!
- They have less features than laptop software has
- Tablets and smartphones have less memory and slower processors than laptops. Power is important
- Software on mobile devices tends to be less stable than on windows and mac operating systems. You don’t want the software crashing during your set!
- Its not possible to plugin in multiple pieces of DJ hardware, so you’ll have to switch to a laptop at some point anyway
- No support for midi controllers
- Less storage capacity for music (on smaller capacity devices anyway!)
- No ability to plug in external hard drives with music backup
- Sharing resources with all your other apps (Facebook, Whatsapp, mail app, messages, etc)
- High chance your phone or iPad with *DING* with a notification during your set, that would really suck!
I could go on, just don’t do it. DJ software is fun to play with on these devices and by all means have it as a backup solution when your DJ setup fails for some reason.
Lastly just a quick word on the complete opposite option as its just as valid. You can of course DJ without a laptop!
So if you’re thinking you have to have a laptop in order to be a DJ these days, think again!
Vinyl is making a come back!
The original format for DJs, the good old 12″ vinyl record is enjoying a renaissance right now and you can still buy plenty of music in many genres on vinyl.
Grabbing a set of turntables (2nd hand or otherwise) and a cheap analog mixer is very easy to do and cheaper than a laptop will cost you!
The next generation after vinyl was CD players like the Pioneer CDJ and cheaper Numark NDX500.
You can also get 2nd hand hardware in this format and its very easy to either buy CDs of your musical genre or burn your own CDs from your playlist.
Either way CDs are still a great way to DJ if you want to avoid using a laptop
DJ media players
The obvious step for a lot of DJ hardware but one thats only just being realised. Some DJ controllers now have the ability to play tracks direct from a storage device like a USB external drive, flash drive or memory card. This cuts out the need for a laptop altogether and I can see a trend in this as expensive laptops are a bottleneck for creativity and another expensive piece of hardware that could go wrong.
The downside is these new integrated DJ hardware solutions are expensive! The Pioneer CDJ 350B can handle plenty of media formats on USB drives plugged in to it but you’re looking at around £500 per deck and you still need a mixer!
Start DJing with just your laptop!
Hopefully I’ve answered the question “Can I DJ with only a laptop?” pretty well.
YES you can DJ without any hardware if you really want to. At least get an extra USB audio adapter to make previewing and playing 2 channels possible.
Keep your DJ sets simple and think about maybe getting a Midi controller when you have the budget, its worth it!
Here’s some more articles you should read now.