Digital DJing has put the once expensive, elitist art of DJing right into the grubby hands of the masses. Now anyone with a laptop and a free copy of Virtual DJ Home can spin in their bedrooms, at parties, and even at "proper" gigs. But while the new tools of digital DJing give true music fans the chance to spin great DJ sets when otherwise they probably wouldn't even have tried, the same tools in the wrong hands can wreak havok in the DJ box.
Digital DJ Tips is all about helping you to DJ properly with portable digital DJ gear, so you can avoid making the mistakes beginner digital DJs (whether they've been vinyl or CD DJs before or not) often make with digital gear.
So here's our round-up of seven great features of digital DJing software that can be used for good... or for evil!
Ah, the ubiquitous "sync" button. Hit it, and your two tunes not only snap to the same BPM, but even line up beats-wise, allowing you to whip the crossfader across with everything sounding tight. Some say it's taken the skill out of DJing, others say if a computer can do it instantly, was it ever really such a great skill at all?
Whatever, the sync buttons is the number one dirty secret of digital DJs, and practically everyone at least BPM matches with it, if not using it for full sync.
- Why do it manually when a button can do exactly the same thing for you instantly? Frees up time to do more interesting things with your music
- If your software guesses the BPM wrong, your mix is still going to sound awful, and what's worse, if you've never learned how to beatmatch by ear, you won't be able to do anything about it
This one actually came in with CDJs, but with digital it became ridiculously easy. You just hit "auto loop" or similar and the software gives you a beat-perfect looped section of your track, at any one of the obvious lengths (a bar, eight bars, a beat etc.).
From creatively building up elements across multiple decks or even sample decks to create something genuinely new, to looping some beats at the end of a track while you search for/mix in a new song, this one is used by nearly everyone. Dance music is based on loops anyway, and this is an immensely powerful feature for any DJ with any ounce of musical understanding to use to enhance his or her sets
- Not everyone has an ounce of musical understanding! This can lead to badly executed loop rolls, and to highly tedious sets as rookies loop the end of every track as they try and elbow in the next tune
Those visual representations of your music, sometimes coloured to show frequencies, always showing volume, and sometimes overlaid or parallel so you can see your tracks playing together. Their presence in virtally all DJ software shows how useful they are.
- Instant feedback on your tracks: What's coming up, where the beats are, even what they sound like. Allows you to quickly correct drifting beatmixes, even without headphones. Easy way to see elapsed/time left
- A prop for DJs who can't mix by ear, encouraging "waveriding" at the expense of properly listening. Can lead to screen gazing, so the DJ looks less like someone conducting a party and more like someone checking their email
4. Instant downloads
DJs don't even need to turn up with all the music they end up playing any more.
Someone requests a tune you haven't got? Just go and buy it online and drag it onto one of your decks, and you're ready to go. Some DJ software even has online music sources built in to it.
- Can get you out of a hole if you've forgotten something essential or a VIP requests a tune you haven't got
- Can involve using another program as well as your DJ software, increasing the chance of a crash; you don't have a chance to properly learn the tune before using it in your set; you may inadvertently play a low quality version or the wrong version of a tune; "A DJ is not a jukebox"
5. Instant search
Even as you type, modern DJ software organises your collection under your fingertips. It's one of the main reason you see digital DJs tapping away at their keyboard (except checking their emails, of course 😉 ) and one of digital DJing's trump cards over flicking through record boxes or CD wallets.
- Lets you get to music in a second and get back to rocking your crowd rather than crouching over a record box with a torch, or nosing into a badly organised CD wallet
- Encourages DJs to not sort out their sets, leading to screen staring and paralysis as they frantically search through a ridiculously bloated tune collection looking for the "perfect" next song. Can lead to overuse of #2, looping.
Drag a load of tunes to a playlist, hit "autoplay", and hey presto! Your software DJs for you. Remove the need to even be there or do anything, and let the computer do all the hard work. Most serious DJs would never, ever do this, yet many mobile DJs rely on it under certain circumstances.
- Can genuinely help when the venue is empty, or you're a wedding DJ asked to eat with the party while playing "something in the background", or you want to listen to your set at home while doing something else
- Erm, it's not DJing! Plus software always does atrocious mixes. If you think they sound great, you need to listen to lots of examples of good DJ mixing, and right away
Tap the keylock button and your tunes keep the same musical key as you alter their pitch. Suddenly you can play tunes really slow or fast without them going all baritone/chipmunk on you, and with your tracks' key information (from a program like Mixed in Key) you can do perfect harmonic mixes. Some digital DJs ignore keylock completely, others never turn it off.
- Permits bigger tempo changes than analogue, leading to more adventurous sets - not to mention allowing easy key mixing without doing tedious mental arithmetic as used to be the case with vinyl or CDs
- DJs who don't listen to the results can inadvertently degrade the audio quality unacceptably as the algorithms work harder to keylock complex material far from its original pitch; anally keylocking every mix in your set above all else can lead to bad set programming
So there you have it. In the right hands, these tools can make DJing more fun and a lot easier, and make the end results sound better. But misuse them and you can really mess up. It's basically a case of knowing what they're doing for you before you rely on them - and remembering that tools don't make the DJ.
What's your "dirty secret" of digital DJing? Do you do regularly use some or all of the above? Are you a digital DJ who has pledged never to use some or indeed any of these features? Let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments.