Laptop DJing In Bars: This Much I Know...

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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  1. Taking the points and giving my view on them...

    "The DJ’s mission is to spin tunes, but the real mission is to sell drinks"
    Depends on the venue, but it's mainly true. Most of the time you're job is to keep people happy and in the venue so they'll keep drinking, rather than shuffle off to the next spot. I do feel as one gets "bigger", then the goal becomes to get people to pay money to see you play.

    "Music is more important than technical perfection"
    Wholeheartedly agree. I don't care if you can scratch well, use four decks at the same time without a sync, and get loads of promos no one ever sees for months. If the music sounds like shit, then all the technique in the world won't make it sound better. Crap is still it bland boring techy stuff that only appeals to the five hipsters in the corner or the cheesey pop that makes younger girls smile but gets the DJ plenty of bashing on the internet.

    To me the goal should be to find good music that the crowd will open up to. In a bar you're limited because most of the time it's playing the usual hits over and over. Still, I've seen many creative sets done in trendy sports bars.

    "Proper preparation and homework are essential"
    I agree to an extent, but I never plan sets. 99.9% of the time I'll be into that planned set and see the crowd just isn't feeling it...or I'm being bombarded with requests for different music. It's why I improvise. Unless I'm some headliner who can dictate the sound of the night (and I have loads of people wanting that versus a few who don't) then I have to play as the crowd favors or dislikes the music. Seen too many who walk in with their pre-planned set, won't compromise, and the crowd is leaving...but they still won't budge. And they wonder why they don't get booked again.

    "Mixing is to DJing what a sub-woofer is to sound: You’re not supposed to hear it, but to feel it"
    I agree on this point.

    "The media used to DJ with is about as relevant as the colour of the DJ’s socks"
    I very much agree on this point. It's too bad the vinyl purists are still thinking somehow they can get the laptops taken away and analog vinyl brought back...or everyone on vinyl timecode. Never happen. Make all the arguments in the world, digital is easier, more convenient, and offers more ideas. Analog is dead in my book.

    • Phil Morse says:

      I read that as "prepare some good mixes" rather than "pre-plan all your mixes". I agree with Luis if he means the former, but you if he means the latter, D-Jam! It's always good to have some practised, hot mix segments while remaining flexible.

      • StrangeMatter says:

        Dead on there Phil! I've got a couple of little minimixes stuck in my head that, while I try to avoid relying on them, are always there if I'm struggling for ideas where to go next and need a little extra time.
        The rest of the set, I'll just wing it! I know my tunes well enough to figure out what'll work and what won't on the fly.

      • Point taken. I retract my previous statement.

        Reminds me of the old days when people would make megamixes and press them to vinyl.

      • I always have some stellar stuff locked and loaded. I never exceed 3 songs for these "Banger Blasts", though I gauge the crowds reaction to see whether or not I should slide into a specific genre. I spin a lot of different venues/formats/gigs, and it varies from stuffy corporate cocktail mixers and weddings to nightlife-love and headliner jammy-jams.
        It all boils down to knowing your music. I use Serato DJ (Pioneer DDJSX-1), and it's always a GREAT idea to have your cue points and samples and everything embedded in your tracks prior. Some intros kill vibes. Some chorus's need a helping hand. KNOW your music, and you can improv everything you do. The only thing I know more about my sets than the bartenders are the actual songs I come in the door with. Past that, I never know what I'll play until I start seeing heads rock and cash exchanged at faster rates. WATCH transactions at the bar. I hate to say it, but if an old guy's playing a touch-poker game and keeping to himself, but bobbing to the beat and drinking more and more you HAVE to cater to his Willy Nelson craving over the 4 hot chicks sharing one pitcher for 2 hours. It's economics, and if the till is full at the end of the night, a proper venue owner could give a damn how many heads packed in to fill it...

    • Concerning preparation, I think it's perfeclty healthy to practice particular mixes between specific songs. Some songs almost seem like they were meant to be played together, which happens by trial and error or by playing with tools like Mixed in Key. When I first started DJing a couple years ago, I would practice a particular mix between two songs upwards of 15-20 times if I liked it, just to get it perfect. Since then, I've discovered and learned the qualities about those songs that made them go well together, like key matching, similar beat kits (808s, 909s, Linndrums, DMX, gated reverb drum kits, etc...), frequency balance, vocals vs instrumentals, etc... and I can now intelligently apply these lessons on the fly, much like a musician who practices particular runs over certain chord changes, who then takes that and applies it to different keys or novel changes. When I read about DJs like Theo Parrish who can play 12hr+ sets (with no drugs mind you!), there is no way to program that kind of set, you simply must have tunes for days and have a good imagination for what will work and a good technical level to make it work, which comes not just with practice, but smart practice. My two cents of wisdom. Peace!

  2. Diogo Ferreira says:

    Olá Luis!

    Luis, i totaly understand your point of view if u only want to be djing in bars. Still, a controler lets use both hands and that will not only alow you to prefect your mixing, but open new doors for "new ways of mixing". You will have more fun(couse we all do in a way) and will make u a better Dj.


    • Luís Paulo says:

      Olá Diogo :)

      Well don't get me wrong about my point of view on Midi controllers, I'm planning to get myself one as soon as possible. It's just that with a keyboard I can do more, like for instance have 4 dedicated PLAY/PAUSE buttons or 2 or 3 CUE buttons for any of the 4 decks. Just wish my keyboard had a crossfader 😉

      Anyway, of course a controller would be the real deal, but I don't feel one to be mandatory, just very useful, both to improve performance but also fort he matter of credibility.

  3. I totally agree with Luis. I played in a bar a couple of times using Traktor and the best tech-house tunes mixed flawlessly. But you know know what got the small crowd jumping and the bar full? the well known tracks, commercial ones that were easy to mix. I know that this is sad but you have to remember that big-time DJ's get their big gigs with the help of promoters which in the real world doesn't work for most DJ. So you try to do what a DJ is supposed to do: play the music that the crowd enjoys

  4. Hopefully no one misses the key word in the subject, " BARS." Get the people to drink and have fun and the bar will love you. The only thing I'd be careful on is preparing too much for a set and then find the crowd wants something different and you're stuck.

  5. Hollerfolk says:

    these articles are reaching HARD...

    This does not sound like an article written by someone with much actual experience... It's more conjecture and theory than actual advice...

  6. Heya Phil!! I was wondering when you plan to release that "DJing with just a laptop" series? Anytime soon? After reading this article I thought of trying it.

  7. Oh Yeah?

    Wait till you actually get a decent controller. I bet you'll change your tune then... (no pun intended)

    Seriously though, I think DJ'ing is what one makes of it. I don't ever plan to play Hip Hop and top 40 which is what is big in my town. I don't care if I am relagated to the seediest dive bar with an all vegan menu servicing hipsters until 2 AM, my goal is to play music that I love, and bring it to people that are willing to open up to something new.

    I really thought this article was going to cover topics like how to keep that drunk guy from spilling beer all over your macbook, or should I bring my own PA or use the bar's system? The title of the article is a bit misleading...

    • "Seriously though, I think DJ’ing is what one makes of it. I don’t ever plan to play Hip Hop and top 40 which is what is big in my town"

      With all due respect I think A good DJ should love or at least know of all different types of music, I don't think you can really get that far with that attitude. Just my opinion.

      • Sure, if your goal is to become a wedding DJ...

        Like I said, it is what you make of it. You think the DJ's at Ibiza spin American country music or top 40's hip hop?

        I think not.

        • Phil Morse says:

          It's an interesting debate. However, once you've DJed anywhere or told anyone that you're a DJ, you'll every now and then get asked to do things outside your comfort zone. And many DJs - being the music lovers that they are - can't resist. Personally, I have run a trance/progressive house club, played breakbeat, old school house, chill-out, indie, as well as running a mobile disco - in fact, that was what started it all off. Away from the DJing, I've been in a band, followed bands around the country, been an avid clubber, and dabble in producing music. I think you'll find many "underground" DJs have a more eclectic taste and experience than you might imagine. And playing in bars is a rite of passage (as is mobile/wedding DJing). Robbie Rivera recently related his experience as an up and coming DJ: “I learned how to read a room doing mobiles,” he said. “When I moved to clubs, I understood that the bar had to make money. It took a lotta work, a lotta paying attention.”

          • I'm a death metal-head and biker raised kid... I was a DM vocalist for my formative years. I'm 31, but if you'd have told me at 19-21 that I'd be spinning shizz like "Krewella" or top-40 Mashups for a living one day, I likely would have spit on you and become hostile and ready to kick ass...
            Now? I'm an adult (not just through years, but through experience and wisdom hard earned), and I pay 100% of my bills and for my excessive recreational habits doing this.
            People ask what I like and I say "Everything from Enya to Cannibal Corpse, from Waylon Jennings to Buddy Guy"...
            I grew up and realized it's NOT about the DJ but about the people he's there to please. No one gives a DAMN what YOU like as a DJ, unless they like it too.
            A bar gig is not normally the venue/format for "getting people into new stuff". Plain and simple.
            Pigeonholed DJ's aren't successful, and their elitist attitude is a turnoff to producers and other artists/dj's who would otherwise probably work with them.
            It is also a HUGE turnoff to venue owners/management.
            The best DJ's eventually gravitate to production, because their decks just don't alter tracks as their "Brains Ear" hears them. Most successful DJ's ARE, in fact, musicians. I play like 8 instruments, for example, and am teaching myself piano now. I challenge myself through every gig I take, and to agree with Phil 110%, I am not happy unless I'm pushing the envelope or taking those odd requests and unfamiliar formatted gigs.
            I just wanted to say that. I'm going to go back to lurking and reading now, but I'm always in the interim. 😉

    • Phil Morse says:

      Yeah I guess it could have been a bit misleading. I've altered the subtitle of the article to make it a bit clearer :)

      • Phil,

        clearly you haven't seen Rebecca Black. Youtube it to find out more (at your own discretion). This is the kind of stuff that sells here in America. Garbage pop music. Terrible hip-hop music. Etc Etc.

        I have no issue with expanding my tastes musically (and do so frequently), I should have been clear about that up front. But it's becoming increasingly hard to categorize what one normally hears on the radio and what's topping the charts here in the US as "good" music.

        • Phil Morse says:

          I was over there last Fall plus we are a sponge for US pop culture over here unfortunately... so I am aware! There's always an angle on pop though... if 1 in 10 tunes works for you on some level, you can soon fill your box with tasteful/interesting remixes of pop from the last 5 years, and then fill in the gaps with more credible stuff to get a rounded set that works for you. Also, obscure old remixes of old, old hits are a great lifesaver because people think they're brand new versions...

    • How can you expect people to "be willing to open up to something new" When you as the DJ are not.
      Its not about playing out with all the different genres so much as understanding the connections between them.
      Look at how Funk influenced disco and hip hop. Read up on the Amen break. Check out Johnny Cash.
      Hell, check out Madonna. Im not saying love them all but learn from them
      Learning the history and connections between disparate music can only improve your understanding of where the genre you prefer stands.
      Youre a DJ man, dont say never

  8. Credit to Luis, he's a beginner and he'll move on from laptop DJing to controllers and then maybe more.

    But for anyone thinking of it, I'd advise against laptop DJing for the reason that it looks poor.

    Sure if you play a good set then we all agree to be friends, but I just can't get over seeing smug laptop DJs doing nothing but drinking with their friends when the computer is mixing for them.

    If this is the way mixing is heading, then before long, we won't need humans!

    • Phil Morse says:

      Hear you, but disagree! We advise completely to being with computers nowadays.

      You don't "move on" from a laptop to controllers to CDs and then, gasp, maybe vinyl any more - you move on from laptop to laptop plus a Midi controller that you customise to suit you, to a laptop plus a controller or two plus more complex software that allows you to do more, to a laptop plus the exact hardware/software combination that allows you to produce and DJ in a way that's completely unique to you. Analogue is dying and the "old" ways of DJing is dying with it.

  9. Good article, but I just can't imagine DJing with just a laptop. I need some sort of a controller!

  10. Well said, Luis. I do not play in bars or anything as such. Yet the goal is the same: Get people to enjoy the music and themselves. The media utilized by the DJ is irrelevant as long as the people listening are enjoying what is being played: "The end justifies the means" in this case.

    Keep practicing and enjoy.

  11. DJ Christopher Jay says:

    I have to disagree on a couple of your points, Luis.

    Firstly I think you're getting your art mixed up with your science. Understanding beats, cuepionts, key, etc is mostly mathematical. Thats the science. The art is in how you perform the music - the creativity. The ability to read your crowd is neither. Thats a learned skill, like walking or riding a bike.

    Next, your point that music is more important than technical skill. It isn't. It is actually equally as important. If you can't even beatmatch (the most basic DJ skill) then you aren't at a level to be playing gigs. Sure, there's the sync button, but if you aren't doing technically complex and creative stuff and you aren't beatmatching, what the hell are you doing for the 3 and a half minutes between song changes?

    The other big thing I have to disagree with is you're contempt for vinyl DJs. Certainly vinyl alone doesn't give you the same tools to be super creative with your music that digital does, but to label vinyl-only DJs as pretentious shows complete disrespect for the heritage of your craft.

    Just as a final note, I'm what I suppose you'd call an all-rounder. I use vinyl, CD, and sometimes digital elements too. While I have nothing against digital DJing (I wouldn't be here if I did!) I do have a big problem with sync-button DJs who don't beatmatch, but don't display any creative or technical skill in its place. They're basically spitting in the face of those of us who take the time to practice and work hard to master our craft.

  12. Hmmm ... '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.' Are Ricardo Villalobos, Danny howells, Jeff Mills, a big percentage of D&B and numerous after dj's pretentious and lacking in perspective?
    And as for someone who has never used vinyl, you have no ground for comparison. It has it's limitations, I agree. But try telling sasha that back in the 90's.
    I understand that the article is reffering to bar djs, but isn't that where we aspire to be, working our way up?
    And as for you're first comment, it's always been about the music, my friend. You're talking from a bar owner's point of view. I thought this was a dj's topic. Let's not forget that most clubs(even the more known ones, but with some exceptions ... Fabric, DC10)started out as a bar of some kind, with the purpose of selling drinks and making money. Now in our minds, the music is the priority and the reason we go. In the owners mind, it's a business and they wanna make some dollar.
    I'm not knocking you. But I feel you have a lot to learn. I say that in a positive way, I can assure you.
    And get a controller!!

  13. dude, there are a ton of midis out there that arnt too expensive such as the numark mixtrack ($130) or even the hercules control mp3 e2 ($80). having a simple controller like one of these would give you so many benifts, you need 2 be able to control things like eq with knobs instead of a mouse or keys cause itl make ur transitions smoother, and this includes things like effects + loops aswell. btw, if i was a bar owner i wouldnt b happy with a dude i pay cash to show up with a mac computer playing music like that. idk man.

  14. Phill, great take on the usefulness of pop remixes ...xmix comes to mind as I love their dance and urban series.

  15. Phill

    great take on the usefulness of pop remixes ...xmix comes to mind as I love their dance and urban series.

  16. great take on the usefulness of pop remixes ...xmix comes to mind as I love their dance and urban series.

  17. I am a dj who uses Tracktor Pro and Xone 2D controller. I moved from playing 3 decks and mixer, but have not looked back since going digital. I can highly recommend the Xone, a continuous controller gives beautiful smooth mixing and the filters are to die for.
    I agree that music is perhaps more important than technical perfection. However, I have been working with harmonic mixing over the last 5 years, and this has given me the tools to present the music in a way that no one else does. And a connectedness to my mixes so I can present a variety of styles as part of one piece of music.
    In a world where i feel there are almost more djs than punters, I think good songs and seamless mixing are not enough. You have to be different, and stand out. But in a way that the crowd relates to and loves.
    Interesting too, electronic music is still very much a boy's club and being in the boy's club will get more gigs than any amount of talent. Its the sad truth and wont change until people admit it. Having an ability to present music differently and in a way the people appreciate can actually work against you not for you.
    Luckily for me, its something I do mainly for myself and my friends. Playing for my best friends wedding was actually one of the big highlights for me, everyone had a blast!
    Great article, and sheds light on a few myths about what djing is and isn't!

  18. DJ Slacker says:

    I Dj a mid size bar. My views have changed on my job description. I have to say that their is nothing more rewarding then looking out into a crowd and seeing people have a great night. However if you have a crowd like mine the evening can go either way if you read them wrong or change musical style rapidly. My suggestion to new Dj's get to the bar early introduce yourself and talk to the crowd, listen to the juke box selection. I have found even after 3 years if I break the ice they will flood me with requests. Which leads to how to hold them through the genre shift. This is where your knowledge of music is key. BPM is important the key is vital. You can get a key wheel chart off the Internet. BPM shifts of more then 20 are hard to mix into each other couple this with clashing key changes you may see their mood shift. Learning BPM And key has given me the ability to shift from country to r&b dance into rock over to punk which is a must to play their requests. As I said I thought my job was to just play music, I now view myself as a conductor I keep the the beat and flow, orchastrate smooth transitions.

  19. Cliff Whitney says:

    I am gonna add my 2 cents to this we all know I can...
    When I first started DJ'n with my laptop I used a small 2 octave Midi contoller audio interface that I created a midi mapping for (M-audio Ozone) the keys were used as the primary functions (play,cue,stop,sync,nudge forward + backward,pitch up + down) for a 2 deck setup in Traktor ...I used the mod wheel as my cross fader and the 8 knobs as my low, mid, hi EQ and filters.... It took 3 days for me to figure what I needed and map it all out....
    I got a job at a local bar that told me they didn't want to be a club....
    The patrons decided otherwise and I stayed there until the bar owner and I had a disagreement...
    I now play in a totally different venue that mostly caters to an older crowd....
    I play classic and power rock mixed with top 40 from the last 4 decades....
    The owners are happy because I play for the crowd...... They all drink and have a good time.... But this is the most fundamental part.....
    Playing to your crowd... And within the first 5 minutes of walking into the venue I know what they wanna hear based on the age demographic of the patrons....

  20. I've read a few of the replies above and not sure if anyone has made this point or not, but this paragraph seems to contradict itself and irritated me a bit:

    "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."

    Are we suggesting that people enjoyed themselves less 30 years ago because all the DJ could do was a running mix, segue or slip-start? And what about in the decades before that when there were no pitch controls (apart from a fingertip) and the decks needed a full turn to hit 45RPM? Did the crowd have a worse time?

    I use digital now (laptop + controller) and have never used CDs (they just confuse me for some reason), however I DJ'd a lot in bars and clubs in the late 80s and early 90s when vinyl was the only option in most cases. It was great - people were happy, they danced, they spent money and they came back week after week for more of the same. So it really isn't about the technical skills - it's only about using the music to entertain the audience in front of you the best way you can.

    Unlike in a club, most bar punters won't notice a clever, beat-perfect, in-key mix and many won't even know what song you played last. So as long as the sound quality is good and the music flows and suits the vibe of the venue, then if I choose to use a pair of 1210s, some real old-fashioned records and my intuition and experience, the crowd will have as good a time as if I spend hours using my "technical skills" to prep a digital set full of "brilliant ideas".

    Tell me which is "pretentious"?

    And if you want perspective, have a read of a book called "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life" to see how the whole scene has evolved over 50 years and how what really matters to an audience hasn't.

    Fact is, I'll take my Traktor rig because it fits in a rucksack :-)

  21. "Proper preparation and homework are essential" yes, but planning a mix is not. Maybe have a few songs that you know will get the party going and work around those songs, playing them at certain intervals with the segues improvised. Whenever you get a new song work that You still need to know where all your cue points are but that way you can follow the crowd instead of pushing them in your direction. Planning a mix only makes sense if you're DJing in an environment where the crowd shares your musical taste. This is why there are perks to being a producer/DJ.

  22. DJ Zero says:

    So I'm extremely new to DJing. I use VDJ8 andI was fairly good at it in the first week. within two weeks, I got to perform at my friend's party. I do not have a controller deck yet, but I'm very interested in the Numark Mixtrack Pro II. I DJed only with the laptop and good speakers my friend had. I am a loop roll master and impressed my friends. I mainly DJ trap and dubstep and a tid bit of rap. Is it okay to have minimal popular music? Because the crowd at the party really enjoyed it. They danced so much that I'm pretty sure the couple at the party get prego right in front of me on the dancefloor. But also, I improvised the whole thing. I'm seventeen. How old can i be to DJ at clubs that are like new trap and techno with good speakers and junk? Cuz I dont wanna mix blake shelton and oldies, you know? Thanks yo!

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