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Beginner DJs are often told about a secret “hack” that means they don’t need to buy an expensive sound card in order to use their DJ software properly. They may even find out that this little DJs’ trick involves a DJ “splitter cable”…
And here’s where the problems usually start! Where do you get one? Will this iPod splitter I got at the airport do? No? Well, what exactly do I need then? How do you set up the software to work with it? Why doesn’t mine work?
Because people usually choose to go down this route right at the beginning of their DJ careers, when they may not even understand fully how a DJ uses his headphones and why it is necessary to “split” the audio or to have two outputs at all, the confusion is often that much greater. So let’s look at all of these points a little closer.
Why do DJs need two outputs?
Unless you understand this, you’re not going to understand the need for a “DJ sound card” or a “splitter cable” or any similar set-up. DJs need to hear a different track in their headphones to the one the audience is hearing. Typically it will be the next track scheduled to play – to double check it is right for the moment, to find the right place to start it, to get it to the right speed, to adjust the EQ and so on.
Thus the need for some way of having two outputs, not one.
Where does the sound come from?
If you’re using a modern DJ controller with your software, more often than not, it has a DJ audio interface built in, and you needn’t worry further – if it has a socket for your headphones and plugs round the back for your speakers, you’re in. But if you have a DJ controller that doesn’t have a built-in sound interface (many older and cheaper models don’t), then the sound comes from your computer – and specifically, from its headphones-out socket. Trouble is, there’s only one of them. and we’ve already worked out that you need two outputs.
And if you’re DJing with your iPad, iPod Touch or even your iPhone, maybe using one of the Algoriddim djay programs, then the iPad has only one headphones output too.
So what are the solutions?
If you’re using a computer, you have two choices. Firstly, you can buy a standalone DJ sound card or DJ audio interface (the terms are used interchangeably) that plugs in by USB to your computer and gives you two outputs. It effectively takes all sound generating responsibilities away from the computer and handles them itself. You plug your speakers and headphones directly into it.
Alternatively, you can use the little “hack” that splitter cables take advantage of. The “hack” is this: By getting your software to send the signal that your audience should hear down the left-hand channel of the computer’s headphones output, and the signal for your DJ headphones down the right-hand channel, it effectively splits one stereo audio output into two separate (albeit mono) outputs.
All you need then is a special lead that will take the left-hand output and send it down a “stereo” cable (although the signal is really in mono) for your audiences’ speakers, while tasking the right-hand output and sending it down another “stereo” cable for your headphones. Plug everything in, and you’ve just achieved two separate outputs.
What are the advantages and disadvantages of this?
The obvious advantage is cost – for the price of a cable you solve your dual sound output issue. For new DJs who are maybe experimenting with DJing using cheap or free software and no DJ controller, the price of a pro DJ sound card can be prohibitive – at least this way you can see if DJing is for you before committing. If you’re an iPhone, iPad or iPod Touch DJ using software like Algoriddim’s djay, there’s no way of adding an external sound card to these devices, so a splitter cable is your only solution.
Another advantage is keeping things simple – it’s one less thing to plug in. A further advantage is to have it as a back-up in case there’s an issue with your sound device or your controller. At least you can then set up quickly and DJ from your software and keyboard should you have to.
The disadvantages are that you’re relying on the quality of your computer’s in-built sound. If its sound card is a bit ropey, your DJing sound quality will be ropey. Plus the signal is in mono, but this shouldn’t really concern you as most club and bar PA systems are in mono anyway. and it’s got half the pwer, although that’s not always an issue if you’ve got good headphones and are plugging into a mixer or PA that can boost the signal back up again.
What else is needed for one of these to work?
The crucial final part of the puzzle is that your DJ software needs to play along. You need to tell it to send the master signal (ie the sound intended for the speakers) down one channel of your computer’s sound output, and the monitor, cue or headphone (they all mean the same thing) signal down the other.
Virtual DJ and Traktor Pro do it fine, and djay for iPhone / iPod Touch and djay for iPad do too – the cable featured above is marketed for use with their software, after all. But you need to check whatever you’re using first, especially if you have an “LE” version of your software.
What if I can’t get a cable?
You can buy one on Amazon, buy you can also make your own by buying cables and/or adaptors. You’ll need an 1/8″ stereo headphones (TRS) plug to two 1/8″ mono headphones (TRS) jack lead, and then two 1/8″ mono headphones (TRS) plug to 1/8″ stereo headphones TRS jack leads, so a total of three leads.
This isn’t a permanent solution for the pro DJ, but it’s a great starting point for new DJs, and a good back-up for any DJ. Plus, if you’re DJing with an iPad, iPod Touch or iPhone, it’s currently your only solution. Just understand the type of cable you need, and the fact that the software has to be configured to use it, and you’ll do just fine.
Did you ever, or do you, use a splitter cable? Have you struggled to get one to work with your system? Please let us know your thoughts and experiences in the comments!