The djay software platform has come on in leaps and bounds in recent months… if you’re an iPhone, iPod Touch or iPad user, that is. The poor old Mac version got left well behind as Algoriddim, the software’s producers, clambered over themselves to keep up with iOS’s rapid advances.
So while the iOS versions are pretty much universally respected, the Mac incarnation (this is strictly an Apple product) has come in for a bit of stick, with “no waveforms!” being the enduring criticism. Well, it’s been a long time coming, but today djay for Mac got one hell of an update. And the launch price is US$19.99. Bear that figure in mind as you read our word-exclusive first review of djay 4 for Mac…
Keep it simple, stupid…
Coming from the Apple way of thinking, Algoriddim – the maker of djay – has always tried to keep things slick, attractive in use, and more than anything, simple. It sometimes felt that they had tried too hard to keep things simple, resulting in a program that, while dazzling to use, couldn’t… well, couldn’t actually do very much.
When we saw the feature list for the new version, we were more than a little surprised…
So when we saw the feature list for the new version, we were more than a little surprised at how much the makers claim to have packed in: Harmonic mixing, on-the-fly audio analysis, iCloud integration, Midi learn plus plug and play support for many modern DJ controllers, innovative effects… the list goes on. This is a long review, but suffice to say there’s plenty we don’t even touch on.
The question is, though, how effectively have they integrated these into the package? And how much do the new features compromise the software’s basic tenet – easy to use, great to look at?
We’re going to look at djay anew, rather than compare back to the old version. With all the new features, it is asking to be compared not to its previous incarnations, but to other top-flight DJ software, so that’s how we’ll approach this review.
First thing is that it is simple to install – you drag it to your applications folder and you’re done. Thanks, Mac.
Upon opening the program, it is still good looking – two turntables with convincing felt-look slipmats occupy the top two-thirds of the screen, and the bottom third is what to all intents and purposes looks like the iTunes library (why it lists my iTunes books and movies, I don’t know – these need removing from the items displayed by default, I’d say).
The main new thing you notice are the waveforms at the top of the screen. They are pretty much identical in use to those offered in the iOS versions; they don’t overlap, and are small and grey – nothing multicoloured. To be honest they’re disappointing – waveforms should be parallel in my view, and there should maybe be an option to have them coloured to show the frequencies, like Serato and now Traktor do. It would just make them more useful, and I can’t see that it’d upset Algoriddim’s sleek and smooth design ethic – after all, coloured waveforms can look really nice.
The display has got kind-of “smoothed” edges, a bit like someone’s pointed a camera down on a real set-up and snapped it. There’s a hint of 3D about the controls, and some digital sharpness is sacrificed for a more grainy, analogue look – it’s hard to explain but it kind of makes your screen look like it’s a piece of DJ gear, at the expense of sharp fonts – at least, in the main window. You’ll either like this or not, but it fits with the idea that djay is a close copy of two decks and a mixer, even in look and feel.
One thing that I’ve always disliked about DJ software is the way it insists on visibly running its own library of your music. I’ve already got a music library, thanks – it’s called iTunes and it works just fine. If my software needs to do something else just to let me DJ with the tunes I keep in iTunes, then I’d like it to do that behind the scenes, and not hassle me with the details. Traktor is worst for this; Serato and Virtual DJ are better but not flawless.
I’ve already got a music library, thanks – it’s called iTunes and it works just fine.
djay gets it right, though, in my opinion. It basically appears as if the software is just presenting you with your iTunes library, and some decks bolted on! All your iTunes playlists are there, as are all the columns for you to choose from and rearrange. While djay does indeed have to analyse your files, like all other software, it spares you the details.
One thing you can’t do is edit your ID3 tags right from in the software – it would be good if this were possible, for adding comments to tunes as you play them (for instance). And of course, the software still has to analyse your music. (Best to let it do it all in one go via the Library menu, because then you’ll be able to sort by BPM and key from the off.)
Six views are possible: your left-hand screen lists from iTunes, sorting by artist, by album, by genre, by history, and an innovative newcomer, by harmonic key.
Music in the key of iLife
When you sort by harmonic key, you’re presented with a circle of fifths which shows you all the songs in a particular pair of major / relative minor keys, but also allows you to quickly peek at neighbouring keys that are likely to mix well with the currently selected song or group of songs.
When djay loads or analyses your music, it works out the key for you, thus doing the job of standalone software like Mixed in Key, right there in the program. Harmonic mixing is a big bonus of digital DJing, and this is the easiest in-software implementation of it I’ve yet seen. While I’ve not tested how accurate their algorithms are, assuming they are there or thereabouts, it’s a great addition.
On top of all of this, it’s possible to digitally alter the key of the tune you’re playing on the fly, in order to attempt to match keys throughout your DJing. All of this digital key manipulation has a downside in that it inevitably reduces sound quality, but as long as you’re listening out for unacceptable compromises, it can be great fun, especially for matching acappellas up with instrumentals. (By the way, both key analysis and on-the-fly pitch changing are also present in Virtual DJ, but not in Serato ITCH or Traktor.)
There’s a little switch bottom left that lets you turn the library from night to day to make it visible DJing in all conditions. Would be good if it could invert the colours of the rest of the window too. There’s a pretty cool auto-playlist to the right that you can drag tunes to, and their album covers appear when you do – nice for parties where you are having too much fun for anyone to DJ! A fast, instant search box completes the library features, and overall they’ve done a nice job of it.
This is strictly two-deck DJ software. If you’re looking for four decks, look elsewhere. It also ties itself tightly to the two turntables and a mixer idea, with two convincing-looking turntables, complete with needles that move across the “records” as they play, and even the Technics-style on/off knobs and red lights, lighting up the strobes round the edges of the “platters”. The decks are impressive, and visually fun to look at and spin on, if a little kitsch.
A big, chunky crossfader, pitch controls and volume faders, plus standard EQ knobs complete the old school look.
Playing a record involves dragging it onto the turntable, which invokes an equally impressive piece of virtual vinyl flying across your screen, with the old record flying off the turntable back the library if you’re replacing something on a deck. If there’s cover art it is used as either the whole record’s surface or just the label in the middle, depending on how you set things in preferences.
You would normally then drop a cue point at the first beat, and use the trackpad or mouse to find that beat; when you do so, the waveform zooms right in so you can see the individual beats easily, zooming automatically out again when you’re done. The cue point appears both on the waveform and as a dot on the record itself.
This is strictly two-deck DJ software. If you’re looking for four decks, look elsewhere. It also ties itself tightly to the two turntables and a mixer idea…
There are actually very few further controls to tell you about at this stage, which is in keeping with the “keep it simple, stupid” philosophy of the software – the rest is there, but you have to go and look for it. There’s a keylock toggle, the aforementioned key change control, a sync button (there’s no beatgridding; sync will attempt to match the beats – if it is out, pressing it again moves the track 1/2 a beat which will nearly always match it for you), and a big red record button top centre – and that’s about it.
Closer inspection (much closer, in some cases!) does reveal a few more controls: There are channel gains hidden in the VU meters, channel pans at the bottom of the meters, pitch bend controls at the bottom of the pitch faders, and subtle little controls above the waveforms that allow you to toggle them from always-zoomed to only-when-needed-zooming, as well as similar controls for instantly activating the loop and FX sections to turn on/off whatever you’ve got set (more on loops and FX next). But for overall, two-deck DJing, djay remains simple, fun to use and non-threatening to beginners.
This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License.