Laptop DJing In Bars: This Much I Know…

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Last updated 20 August, 2014

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Laptop DJing
Successful DJing in bars is not about you or your software, it’s squarely about the music, says Luís Paulo. Pic: Tim Cowlishaw

A recent convert to laptop DJing offers his view on what makes a good bar DJ

I’ve been a music lover all my life, but I’m a relatively new digital DJ. It all started for me because some friends who have a local covers band asked me to play some tunes after a gig they had. Because I didn’t want to just use Media Player or Winamp to play one song after another, I went searching and found Virtual DJ. After two weeks learning the basics and trying to build a decent set, I played my first gig, which went went well (although I only did minimal mixes, I managed to keep them smooth).

In the process, I totally fell in love with DJing. Nowadays, I use Virtual DJ Pro 7 with a four-deck skin on a decent laptop. I totally believe in digital DJing. Analogue DJing just doesn’t appeal to me, because it doesn’t offer me 10% of the options that Virtual DJ does.

I’ve never used CD or vinyl, neither have I used a mixer or controller (the truth is that I just can’t afford to buy one right now). I only use my lappy, with a lot of mapped keys, and the mouse when I must.

So far I’ve played a handful of bar gigs, and already I feel like I’ve learned an awful lot. This is what I know:

  1. The DJ’s mission is to spin tunes, but the real mission is to sell drinks – The DJ is there to help the bar owner to make profit while people are having fun. A DJ is not like a band or a singer: The DJ is not the star of the night, music is. So it’s all about the music, not about the guy/girl in the DJ booth. The DJ’s mission in to entertain, not to get vain.
  2. Music is more important than technical perfection – I believe that a great DJ must master striking a musical balance. One must know how to entertain people by giving them the current hits, some popular oldies, some new stuff for them to get to know, but also some totally unexpected mixes (as well as some obvious ones). And while doing all that, to avoid a change of musical style every three songs (but also not playing the same style all night).
  3. Proper preparation and homework are essential – I don’t feel comfortable with the idea of improvising a complete set live. My best mixes are the ones that I really work on, with cue points prepared and perfect timings practised. It’s the difference between an OK set and a great one. You should force yourselves to try different stuff until exhaustion, not settling for less that the best you can do.
  4. Mixing is to DJing what a sub-woofer is to sound: You’re not supposed to hear it, but to feel it – I will always prefer someone who is using just an iPod playing the music I personally love to a technically perfect DJ who is boring everyone. Now, if I’m hearing someone play the music I love, while feeling totally smooth transitions, eventually with some cool loops and/or samples, then I’m having a great time! And if above that, I look at the DJ and see that the guy is also enjoying himself, that’s when “good” becomes “great”.
  5. The media used to DJ with is about as relevant as the colour of the DJ’s socks – I couldn’t care less about the endless vinyl / CD / MP3 debate. I just care about options, tools and the final result. If digital gives me plenty more options than any other media, then digital it is. The idea of a DJ using vinyl just out of personal preference, even if that means his set suffers, makes no sense to me: It’s pretentious and it lacks perspective. As in art, people who don’t manage to come up with brilliant ideas tend to try to compensate with technical skills.

A challenging part of laptop DJing for me is to manage to do everything I can think of using just a mouse and a keyboard. Ideally I think that one should have a controller, but this really is just a technical detail: For me the hardest part is to build really good sets, and to get used to figuring out quickly which mixes work and which don’t. My final advice to people wanting to start mixing digitally is: Learn the software inside out, and learn about technical stuff (from RCA cables to ground loops to latency to 16 bits versus 24 bits).

Never use your eyes to beat match songs, but use your ears to figure if it really sounds amazing. And lastly, never, ever allow yourselves to put the software above the music.

• Luis Paolo is a 36-year-old Portuguese laptop DJ and Digital DJ Tips reader.

Do you agree with Luís? What are your golden rules for DJing successfully in bars? Do you manage to DJ with just a laptop and without any kind of controller too? Please share your thoughts and experiences below.

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