I'm a part-time DJ who usually does private events, although I do enjoy rocking the occasional party. A while back my mixer broke (water got into the inputs, don't ask how!), and a lack of funds drove me into looking for a quick-fix DJing solution that didn't need a real mixer, and pretty quickly too.
I found that with a bit of practice, I was able to play sets completely from my laptop. And while I don't DJ like this any more, I wanted to share with you my experiences of DJing this way.
How it happened
As I say, I broke my equipment and needed a solution, fast! I had actually already been using Mixxx, the open source DJ software (as at the time I didn't have the funds to buy Traktor or Serato in order to try out digital DJing), and so I decided to sit myself down and teach myself to DJ with Mixxx, and just off of my laptop. The first thing I learned was to use a USB mouse - much easier and more precise than the laptop's touchpad.
I thought it would be a good idea to make heavy use of beatgrids, but I soon learned that I couldn't rely on software for all music; lucky I can beatmatch manually from knowing how to DJ with "real" equipment, as I found that I needed to much of the time.
I already had a Numark DJ I/O sound card to use, so I could separate the headphones and main outputs fine. I was all set...
My first party as a laptop DJ
So I went to my first gig (a large party) with just my laptop, and I have to say that I was nervous as hell! People were giving me weird looks ("Where's your turntables/mixer?"). When I told them I was just going to use my laptop, the skeptical looks intensified...
However, I donned my headphones, loaded up my playlist, and started laying down the tracks, and guess what? I did just fine.
I wasn't able to meld in samples and loops, but I tried something similar by looping parts of tracks loaded in my second software deck and adjusting EQs and faders in the Mixxx dialog. I found this worked well to give my sets a bit of something extra.
What it taught me
This experience, and subsequent experiences DJing with just my laptop at parties, confirmed to me that real skill in DJing is reading a crowd and track selection, whether using "real" equipment or just a laptop. After all, anyone can DJ a set. The question is, can they get people in the mood to dance? This became very clear to me when I was using just a laptop to DJ with. In that respect there's no difference.
The biggest surprise for me was realising that for digital DJing, and especially with just a laptop, it's just as important to be able to beatmatch manually (either with headphones or using waveforms) as DJing the traditional way.
Many times, I was forced to do gigs just reading waveforms. I had to know my tracks and know how to beatmatch well to pull it off.
I don't still DJ this way; since then, I've bought a Kontrol S4 and Traktor, and overall I'd definitely recommend using an actual controller, especially if people want to get into controllerism and that type of thing.
But for getting started or for basic mixing? A laptop is just fine.
• Mubeen is a part-time DJ from Houston, Texas. Later this year, Digital DJ Tips launches a manual dedicated to teaching absolute beginners all they need to know to DJ in public using just a laptop PC.
Have you played in front of a party, bar or club audience from just a laptop? What were your biggest surprises, triumphs and difficulties DJing this way? Or are you a wannabe DJ who just needs a push to get started in this direction? Let us know in the comments!