Many digital DJs begin with just a laptop, downloading Virtual DJ Home (which has 1/4 million downloads a week!), Mixxx (open source DJ software), or buying inexpensive DJ software like djay For Mac. After all, it's a good way to see if digital DJing is for you without spending too much.
Indeed if you then add a DJ splitter cable, you have a fully functioning DJ set-up that it's perfectly possible to perform your first DJ sets with. What's more, with such a set-up you can play in small spaces (behind bars, in cramped DJ booths) where maybe you couldn't fit a controller.
However, in order to do this properly, it helps to know some of the tricks of the trade:
- Learn the keyboard shortcuts - There's nothing less like DJing than staring at a screen, moving a little pointer around with your laptop's trackpad. Apart from the fact that you look like you're checking your emails, DJing is about timing, and rhythm, and things happening fast, exactly when you want them to. You absolutely must find and learn the keyboard shortcuts for your software. Print them out if it helps, or have them open as a PDF and learn your OS shortcut for flicking quickly from your DJ software to your PDF reader, to refer to them when you need to
- Customise your mapping - Most DJ software lets you change the manufacturer's mapping. It ranges from easy to difficult to do depending upon the software, but it's well worth learning. What I'd suggest is to start deciding the controls you don't have on your keyboard that you'd like, and then slowly add mappings for these to the supplied mapping, rather than starting from scratch. That way, you can always control anyone else's copy of the program using the keyboard, not just your own; all that'll be missing are your custom mappings
- Change the key repeat rate - You know when you hold down a key and it waits a second or so then repeats? (Try holding down a letter in a blank text document to see this behaviour.) That's exactly what happens when you hold down a key in your software when DJing. If that key is tempo, or volume, or crossfader, it'll move a bit, wait a second or two, then continue to move at the rate defined in your operating system. So find the keyboard preferences, and change its the speed and repeat rate suit you - typically you'll shorten the time it waits before repeating, at the very least
- Get a good stand - if you're DJing from just a laptop, the last thing you want to do is hunch over it all night. Get a sturdy, angled stand and ensure you can position your laptop pretty high up, so you can easily reach it with your back straight and your head level; that means you can dance and have fun behind the "decks", glancing only occasionally at the screen, and that you'll able to reach the keyboard quickly for making changes. If you position your laptop to the side slightly so your view of the dancefloor (and theirs of you) is not blocked by it, there's nothing wrong at all with DJing like this
- Use a decent sound card - A temptation with laptop DJing is to continue to use a stop-gap splitter cable instead of a good sound card, but don't; buy a decent one and keep the splitter as a backup. If your computer has a PCI or mini PCI slot, an Echo Indigo card sounds great and is highly convenient (make sure you go for one of the DJ ones); if not, something like the Traktor Audio 2 will do fine - but check you can use such a card with your software (Virtual DJ Home doesn't allow the use of DJ sound cards, for instance)
It's all about confidence
Don't let anyone tell you you can't DJ well like this. I DJed professionally with just a laptop and the aforementioned Echo Indigo sound card for five years, and I mean real club DJing - playing house, and mixing it properly. The funny looks always stopped after my first mix, and I rocked the party better (and had more fun) than I used to with vinyl.
In my case, I remapped my software at the time, Virtual DJ, to give me two virtual "decks" and a mixer on my keyboard, so I could control two sets of transport simultaneously, plus all EQs including kills, and do some nifty crossfader tricks too. I also programmed things you can't do on "real" gear, my favourite being a single reset EQ button for each deck; I could mess with effects, EQs and more and then touch one key to get everything back to "clean". You'd need to have been an octopus to do that on hardware.
And while I DJ with controllers nowadays, I can still DJ from my laptop whenever I want to - it's a great "second system" to always have there.
Do you DJ with just your laptop, or have you at any point? Got any tips to share with us? We'd love to hear them, so please feel free to add to the comments below.