5 Tips For DJing With Just A Laptop

Coming Soon: Digital DJing With Just a Laptop

Tayo DJing from his laptop. Pic: James Kendall of The Pistoleers

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:

    1. 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
    2. 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
    3. 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
    4. 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
    5. 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.

Comments

  1. Hey Phil. As I have posted here before, I don’t have a controller but have been using VDJ for a long time. The only piece of equipment I have is a 2 channel analogue mixer and with the help of a 5.1 surround card I am able to route two separate signals into the mixer.
    The best thing to happen to me was when I learnt to map my keyboard to VDJ. I have split the keyboard into 2 virtual decks split in the middle, enabling me to map transport (cue, play, pause), cue points (6 for each deck), looping(auto-loop from 1-32beats with halving, doubling & reloop, shifting the loop in either direction and also manual in and out keys), effects on and off toggle (6 independent effects on each deck), pitch adjustment(including pitch bending and pitch reset), nudging to place a cue point like you would with a jog wheel, sync(which came as an after thought coz I rarely use it). I also have mapped a key to go into search mode whereby if I hit the key I can just type any song I want without touching the mouse. Universal keys like the default samplers for VDJ( F1-F12), and the number pad for jumping a given number of beats from 1-16 in either direction. I did not have to map the equalizers, crossfader, gain and headphone cue panning coz I use the external mixer. The only action I use a mouse is to load a track in either deck, period! Am impressed by your mapping and I would love to look at it. Maybe I can post mine in the forums too, if that is allowed. It really helps to understand your software inside out to make the best of it.

    • Sounds like you’ve done an excellent custom map there. It’s definitely the way forward and by the sounds of it you’ve got a dream DJ set up with very little fuss. Feel free to post your mapping on the forum.

    • I am a mobile DJ,and carry my music on CD’s,can I transfer the songs from the CD(1000) to a removable storage device and use a laptop to DJ?Your advice would be greatly appreciated.

  2. PeterDinkow says:

    Hi, I just want you to know that I am preparing a party for 25th of december, a christmas party and this article helps me a lot and brings my confidence much higher because I will lead the music with my laptop only …….thank you for the °help° I”d like to call it……….music.

  3. My only issue is scrolling and cue up a track in Traktor with just a laptop. You can duplicate using a jogwheel or turntable doing this. If there was a way I would likely DJ like this more often but it’s a pain.

    • Do you mean track selection or within the track?

      Track selection is arrow-up and arrow-down through the list and ctrl+arrow-left/right for deck A/B.

    • To locate a track I use search. No “browsing through tracks” knob comes close. And I’ve mapped ctrl+left to load into A, and ctrl+right to load into B.

      On the numeric keyboard, I’ve mapped “/” (left, above “8″ to jump to previous cue point (for the deck with the focus) and “*” (right, above “9″) to jump to next cuepoint, when the deck isn’t playing. When it is playing, “/” maps to temporarily slow down (nudge) and “*” to temporarily speed up; and with ctrl pressed, they permanently decrease resp. increase speed by one more step (0.5%). I think that also having the choice for a smaller step size would be a nice addition for finetuning.

      That setting, which takes just a few keys, solves most of my manual syncing problems.

  4. Great to see that sound card still being recommended, that was my first card (bought 9 years ago) and still using it today – a classic!

  5. I am not affiliated with this company but check out

    http://www.kbcovers.com/servlet/StoreFront

    for software specific keyboard overlays. Not only will it help you learn the shortcuts, it also protects against some idiot spilling their drink on your computer.

    …speaking of which, get insurance for your gear! Take pictures and keep a record of everything you want to be covered.

  6. Dj Chronoss says:

    I ve benn djing from just a laptop since 2005…and i had any money so i just mixed by heart XD it was good times!! been a dj its just about having fun and do it right!! Greetings from Chile!!

  7. this is a reason everyone going for digital, last time djing I use a cheap USB soundcard with VDJ + keyboard mapping, still could rock a small room party :D

    for Traktor and Mac user, they should use a custom keyboard cover.
    http://www.kbcovers.com/servlet/Categories?category=Traktor+Pro

    unfortunately there aren’t for windows laptop :(

  8. ‘DJ splitter cable’ sounds hazardous! ok joking only, love all your articles (seasoned veteran myself really). Keep up the good work! :)

  9. Do you mind to share those mappings for VDJ, Phill?

  10. Cool article. When I first started, I use iTunes DJ setting. To be more “professional” I switched to Virtual DJ. All I use now is my laptop and external hard drive. And I still get gigs. If you know your music well and learn about harmonic mixing and BPMs, you can get away without using headphones. Of course, I plan on having headphones and controller in the future.

  11. After years of vinyl and cd playing I was just curious and got the first Traktor version from a huge recordstore that was closing that day – for only a dollar! Then bought a cheap usb soundcard for PFL, and tried it out. I agree to learn playing by keyboard shortcuts, though nowadays I also recommend getting any controller you can get hands on, be it a midi keyboard or any other small controller like a nanokontrol, LPD 8 or whatever, and create your own mapping. That way you get easily used to finding and correcting mistakes in your mapping. It’s tricky when you start, but lots of fun to get it working.

  12. as i recall Tayo was playing on Traktor Scratch using CDJs for the time codes. i remember because i rested my elbow down on the CDJ play pause button and plunged the club into silence. i would have felt worse if Tayo hadn’t fallen asleep in the mix. yeah, i the mix. he also closed the laptop mid set. i don’t think it was anyone’s finest hour.

    btw, if you want to look at more of my photos you can see them at cargo collective.com/kendall

  13. Will this do the job for a splitter?

    http://www.maplin.co.uk/3.5mm-stereo-plug-to-two-3.5mm-mono-socketsadaptor-1215

    Would rather this than any more wires..

    • Kind of, but you’d need two 3.5mm mono jack-to-stereo-plug adaptors to turn the 2 x mono outputs from this into pseudo-stereo outs that would power both speakers and both headphone ear cups rather than just one.

      • Thanks Phil

        From one connection I’d have 3.5mm jack going to red/white cables into an amp.

        In the other I’d just have my headphones plugged in.

        How would that work?

        • As I say, you need the leads I outline in order to get the two items you want to plug in to work on both speakers. Using the adaptor, you’ll only get sound out of one headphone ear cup and one speaker.

    • James Pieaterson says:

      I tried to pick up a splitter cable from Maplins and it turned into a headache. You just get the same sound coming out of each side so PFL doesn’t make any difference. The only way I got around this was to get a USB soundcard and with ASIO4ALL you can use the laptop’s soundcard at the same time. Makes the laptop a bit glitchy doing it this way I think. It’s probably worth just stumping up the cash for a controller with soundcard built in.

      On another note, I decided the other day to make two partitions on my laptop. One with Windows 7 for general things and the other with XP and a minimal setup for Traktor, thus hopefully ensuring everything works and continues to do so. Seems okay so far but is a real pain when you have to work out why you can’t get back into Windows 7. Figured it out though :D

      • Phil Morse says:

        With splitter cables it’s imperative to buy a DJ splitter and not just a normal splitter, because as you found out, normal splitter cables are useless.

  14. Mauri Moore says:

    12 years before i had no money , so i played sometimes with a keyboard with sticks (coloured ones done with Paint, for all : play-cue – loops , bend , etc) .

  15. Ok Phil, i’m really a new dj kid on the block from Nigeria in Africa……i got mad passion fo the job n it is really a hobby….i currently use the vdj7 free version. i’ve had a few gigs where i’ve done my best to impress crowd…..so do you think you can gimme more tips….i’d love to be a veteran Dj

  16. totally with you on this one. ive been laptop djing for about 5 years now and i still dont use a controller. may well do one day but ubntil now just a laptop, and an m audio sound card have served me well…

    • Laptop djing:::: What speakers/pa systems do you use with just the laptop? I’m in the planning stages of a teen dance club and looking for the easiest ways on a shoestring budget for djing.

  17. Instead of remapping the keyboard, just get a cheap 80 dollar plastic controller. It can be remapped as well. And save the keyboard for other keyboard shortcuts

  18. @ keyboard short cuts – Coloured keyboard stickers/labels

    Virtual dj – http://www.alturl.com/w5b86
    Traktor – http://www.alturl.com/7pudd

  19. After reading this days ago, I FINALLY REALIZED THAT I CAN START DJ’ING WITH JUST MY PC. Thanks Phil for the inspiration!

    Anyway, I have problems mapping my eq’s into my two decks. Can I ask how did you mapped the eq kills and clean? Thanks Phil! (BTW, I use VDJ Pro 7)

  20. DJ Sippy says:

    Hi all,

    I just want to be sure i understand something so I will be ready for a reception gig coming up. I currently use VirtualDJ Home and I want to make sure I have the right idea. If I connect my laptop into my external mixer (as if I were connecting a CD player) would this surfice? My thought is that this way I can use my laptop in one of the mixer channels and have my mics plugged into the mixer as well.
    Thanks for any help!

  21. Dj Blitz says:

    Hey Phil, You have been a great Inspiration for many & I truly appreciate that. Im a beginner and use a laptop and VDJ..Now I have invested most of my money on My system (Matrix B-52 1000) A t-stand and 3 led lights a lazer, and music. As you know all this stuff come become expensive. The problem is I have everything but a controller or anything else (cd players) I have no more funds and feel kind of embarrased to do gigs without any (proper) equipment.And i usually just beat match by ear..But now that I have read this post It gives me a bit more confidence to do some gigs earn some money and buy a controller in the near future..Your thoughts..?

  22. Alright, Phil…So I have my first live set coming up this Saturday and all I have is my laptop and VDJ. Speaking from a very basic standpoint, what else do I need?

    • A DJ mono slitter cable for headphones monitoring or preferably a DJ sound card for better quality. Headphones. A lead to plug your master output into the club’s mixer or PA.

  23. Ronald Woodman says:

    I dj with No headphones or splitters I use Virtual DJ-Pro I plug in directly to amp and rock it! If you know your music all you need is a cable to plug into the amp and your of like a bull with gas Lol… ( My name is DJ Loisaida all my mixes are headphone free
    know your music)

  24. Hi phil thx for all your tips and trick…can u plz give tips and tricks for ipad dj too :)

  25. I took you advice and got a soundcard, well actually I already had a Behringer UCA 222 that I was using for recording guitar. I put it to use with Traktor and Virtual DJ. Good results for not much outlay.

  26. So grateful for your thread … I am going to play this new year using a laptop …i am so confident right now … Thanks alot :)

  27. Everyone wish me good luck please

  28. I’ve been DJing for the last 20 years, but I’ve stopped DJing for a while when I had my kids. Now that the kids are all grown up, I’ve started DJing again (that passion won’t go away!)… but since I don’t have my gears anymore, I’m doing it with my laptop! Of course, it’s not the same feeling as using a controller, but, with patience, you can achieve anything with only a laptop!. And I have proof! I’ve setup my promotionnal website recently, and all the DJ sets in there, until now, are done only with my laptop and Virtual DJ! I’ve bought a Numark NS6 controller this week, that I will use in the future, but my laptop did a very good job while I was putting money aside to buy that new gear! Anything is possible… You just need the passion for it!
    For the curious, my website is http://www.djmirraw.com

  29. can i using following Y-splitter cable can i simply splits the stereo headphone output into two mono left and right outputs. With the correct sound configuration in VirtualDJ, then plug my master output into one side and my headphones into the other and have pre-listening capabilities

    http://www.amazon.in/HOSA-Stereo-3-5-Phone-Male/dp/B000068O5H/ref=sr_1_fkmr0_2?ie=UTF8&qid=1408713208&sr=8-2-fkmr0&keywords=HOSA+STEREO+3.5mm+PHONE+%28M%29+-+TWO+MONO+%281-TIP+AND+1-RING%29+3.5MM+%28F%29%2C+6+in.

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